For thousands of years, humans have really, really liked one element in particular: gold. Gold has been used as money for millennia, and its price has been going through the roof.
We went to an expert, Sanat Kumar, a chemical engineer at Columbia University, and asked him to take the periodic table and eliminate anything that wouldn't work as money.
After some deliberation, we’ve come up with a list of three key requirements:
- Not a gas.
- Doesn’t corrode or burst into flames
- Doesn’t kill you.
Silver reactive—it tarnishes. Early civilizations couldn’t have used rhodium or palladium, because they weren’t discovered until the early 1800s.
That leaves platinum and gold, both of which can be found in rivers and streams.
But the melting point for platinum is over 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit.
Gold happens to melt at a much lower temperature, which made it much easier for pre-industrial people to work with.
So we ask Sanat: If we could run the clock back and start history again, could things go a different way, or would gold emerge again as the element of choice?
"For the earth, with every parameter we have, gold is the sweet spot," he says. "It would come out no other way."
Today of course, we don't use gold as money; we use paper. It doesn't kill you, but it can be found in abundance and has an annoying tendency to burn when it comes into contact with a flame.