Where do nature's building blocks, called the elements, come from? Her job is to figure out how much gold is in them there rocks. I don't see any more rocks in here, but the bad news is, I don't see any gold in here, either. Final steps: cool and clean the bars, stamp them with their unique serial numbers and their weights. The ancients first learned how to heat rocks to extract copper, at least 7,000 years ago. Traders in New York, London and Shanghai buy and sell more than 20 million tons a year. Copper has been prized for millennia for its unique properties: it conducts electricity better than any metal except silver; it's malleable and has a moderate melting temperature; it even scares away bacteria. Even with all the other modern materials available, they still choose bronze. Hasn't something better come along, after all these years? The quality of the sound depends on the atomic structure of the material.
Every day she receives hundreds of samples of earth taken from the mine. …then pulverized to the consistency of baby powder. But two rows above gold is another metal of antiquity that looms large in our lives: copper; symbol Cu; atomic number 29—29 protons, 29 electrons. Bronze helped to spur global trade, and, once forged into tools and weapons, it played a defining role in the empires of antiquity. I'm here because they're about to cast several bells.
This rock face is about a quarter mile below the surface, and, according to John Taule, it's loaded with gold, somewhere. That's where Gayle Fitzwater and the assay team come in. I think I've seen one of these machines at Starbucks. It is, perhaps, the most emotional of the elements. Tin added in small amounts to copper makes bronze, the first manmade metal alloy. This is The Verdin Company, a 170-year-old family-run business in Cincinnati, Ohio.
Here, at the Cortez Mine, in Nevada, high-tech prospectors are moving mountains, closing in from above and below. Which raises a question: if the gold is invisible to the naked eye, how do they even know if they're digging in the right place? Eight bars, million, sitting on this unassuming little table. Of all the elements that touch our lives, nothing drives humankind to acts of love or destruction like gold. Copper alone is impressive stuff, but when ancient metallurgists combined it with another element, they invented a much tougher material that went on to conquer the world. Tin; symbol Sn; atomic number 50—50 protons and 50 electrons.
If you're like me, you care about the elements and how they go together,… The problem is it's exceedingly rare stuff in the earth's crust, and it's getting harder to find all the time. Mike tells me that each bar represents about a million pounds of rock that had to be moved and processed.
Gold has been sought since ancient times, yet all the gold ever mined would fit into a single cube about 60 feet on a side. It was a sacred material to ancient people, and it's never lost its luster. Only a few natural elements have greater density than gold: rhenium, platinum, iridium and osmium.
Like all elements, gold is an atom that gets its identity from tiny particles: positively charged protons in the nucleus, balanced by negatively charged electrons all around, plus neutrons, which have no charge at all. It's virtually indestructible, yet also soft and malleable.
Far from prying eyes, the ground erupts; heavy equipment moving millions of tons of earth in search of something: a secret, deep underground. I'm starting with one of humanity's first elemental loves: gold; symbol Au.
Join me on my Hunt for the Elements, right now, on NOVA. They tell me that so much money flows out of this place, it's like a gold mine. It's a journey that dives deep into the metals of civilization, marvels at the mysteries of the extremely reactive, reveals hidden powers and harnesses secrets of life, from hydrogen to uranium and beyond.
Can we crack the code to build the world of the future? By digging, these guys are hoping to strike it rich. I'm on a quest to understand the basic building blocks of everyday matter. These symbols represent the atoms that make up every single thing in our universe: 118 unique substances arranged on an amazing chart that reveals their hidden secrets to anyone who knows how to read it.
It turns out that nature has concealed thousands of pounds of the stuff under billions of cubic feet of earth.
To see what it takes to get something bigger than that tiny bead, I visit the processing plant where the ore ends up. Here too, extraction begins with crushing, in these huge tumblers. So what the farmers would do is they would say, for example, "David, you loan me some money, okay? I can hardly think of anything that doesn't have either a tiny bit of copper or lots of copper. When placed in a circuit, the negatively charged particles line up and flow as an electric current.