In a BBC Business interview in 2014, Professor Sella explored why it is that out of all the elements, gold has become the most trusted and respected money. Systematically, he worked his way through all the elements in the periodic table to eliminate all the elements that would simply not be suitable as money. This is common sense since everything physical in existence is made up of one or more elements in the periodic table. When choosing money, therefore, 118 elements are available (see Figure 7.1).

The first batch of elements to be disqualified are noble gases, for obvious reasons. While a cigarette lighter may contain some gas that is worth something, it is clearly impractical, not to mention that its colourless state makes identifying gases very difficult. So, elements 1 to 10 are immediately disqualified as practical forms of money. The same applies to elements further down the right-hand column, such as mercury and bromine, which are impractical as money because they are liquid at room temperature. Arsenic is also a bad idea since it is poisonous.

On the left side of the periodic table are the alkaline metals and earths, but these are very reactive and explosive, or even radioactive (for example uranium, plutonium, and thorium), so those won’t work either.

In the middle of the table, we find the transition metals. These are durable and would potentially be suitable as money. These are found in the highlighted area in Figure 7.1.

Figure 7.1        Transition metals in the periodic table


On closer examination, as Sella explains, many of them are unsuitable for use as money. For example, some would tarnish and rust (like iron), so if these were used as currency, they would be self-debasing. Iron is likewise not scarce enough to be used as money, since everyone would be able to create their own money. Titanium, zirconium, niobium and a few others might be durable but are incredibly difficult to smelt, requiring temperatures upwards of 1 000 degrees Celsius. The technology for that level of smelting heat was not available to early civilisations. Of these transition metals, there are eight promising metals (platinum, palladium, rhodium, iridium, osmium, ruthenium, silver and, of course, gold) that meet the criteria discussed earlier in the chapter (see Figure 7.2).

Figure 7.2 Transition metals that meet the criteria for money

Palladium is certainly scarce and has increased in price over the past few years. However, it was not discovered until the late nineteenth century. Rhodium is likewise too scarce and, together with palladium, platinum, and silver, explained Sella, is somewhat indistinctive. That is, without elementary knowledge of chemistry, distinguishing one from another is challenging. Of these elements, silver and gold meet the numerous practical criteria for money. The central condition for choosing these two elements as money is the equilibrium of rarity and scarcity.

What a brilliant description of the periodic table to demonstrate why gold and silver are forms of money superior to anything else on the planet!

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