Have You Ever Watched Pure Gold Evaporate?
The proof of your faith, which is more precious than gold that perishes even though it is tested by fire, may be found to result in praise, glory, and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. 1 Peter 1:7
If I had to write a list of the most interesting things I've ever seen, it would definitely include watching pure gold melt, then boil, and then evaporate — and then transform itself into something that appeared almost out of this world.
For my friend who showed me the process, it was part of an ordinary (almost routine even) scientific experiment. Yet it left a profound effect on me. And I thought about it a lot, for years afterwards.
It's not every day that you even think of gold (as in actual, elemental, pure gold) as being a gas. Let alone getting to see it transform from solid gold into gas, right before your very eyes.
It all happened in the 1990s, inside a machine that my friend was using for her PhD research. I'd forgotten what the technique was called. But some quick internet research reveals it to have the rather-plain-sounding name of "thermal evaporation". Fortunately, the machine had a transparent dome-shaped cover — so it was possible to watch everything happen, as it happened...
The Day I Watched Gold Evaporate
To begin the process, some granules of pure gold were placed into a small dish-shaped indentation in a piece of metal known as a "tungsten boat". It was made of tungsten because the melting point of tungsten, at 3,422 °C, is higher than the boiling point of gold at 2,700 °C. So it's possible for the gold to evaporate before the tungsten even melts. I was told how much the gold was worth, but I've forgotten. Perhaps two or three hundred dollars? And the tungsten boat itself was worth almost a hundred dollars, very roughly, from memory (like $80 perhaps?). In 1990s dollars.
Next, the tungsten boat — with the gold in it — was placed into the machine, and clamped between two electrical connections. A piece of glass resembling a microscope slide (I don't remember, but it might have been an actual microscope slide) was also placed into the machine. The transparent dome-shaped glass (probably some special type of heat-resistant glass) lid was closed. And the machine was powered on.
First, the machine sucked all the air out from inside, so there was a vacuum under the dome. This was important so that the gold, once evaporated, wouldn't collide with the air particles/molecules.
Then, a massive electrical current was pumped through the tungsten boat. Kind of like a fuse in a fuse holder, except bigger, and the fuse (being made of tungsten) didn't melt. But it did start to glow, first red-hot, then yellow-hot, then white-hot.
As it heated up, the gold melted, and then started to bubble and boil. And then... to actually evaporate.
All That Glitters Is Not Gold — Except for When It Is
The next thing that happened is that the evaporated gold was somehow sucked onto the glass slide. I'm not sure how this happened, perhaps the slide was charged with static electricity, or something, that attracted the gaseous gold to it. If I get around to it I may further research this.
Once it was all finished, and cooled down enough, the machine was turned off and the lid was opened. The tungsten boat had no more gold in it. The glass slide was now completely covered in a very thin coating of fresh, pure gold. The gold "plating" on the glass, although relatively thin, was thick enough that you couldn't see through it. It appeared from the top to be a piece of fully solid gold.
It really is hard to describe in words how amazing it looked. In a way, it was like nothing I've ever seen, before or since. It just looked amazing. Glass is a very smooth and flat substance — think of how well a suction cup sticks to it compared to most other surfaces, even seemingly-very-smooth metal surfaces. I think that was part of why the gold layer on it looked so shiny and so perfect.
For the first time, I felt like I really did understand why gold has always been the world's primary substance used to store monetary value. For nearly all of human history. Why so many men (and even some women) have spent their lives digging for it. Enduring such extremes of harsh conditions, risk, and disappointment for it. Why so many wars have been fought, and so many have died over it.
I'd always thought I understood how beautiful gold can look. In shiny expensive items of jewellery, for example. (However most of that isn't pure gold, and doesn't have the same amount of "magic" to its look). I was very scientific as a child, and I'd also understood for a long time how gold is one of the most inert elements there is. Meaning that it doesn't chemically react much at all. It stays pure. It doesn't tarnish, nor does it rust away. This is another of the reasons why it's always been valued as a form of currency.
Yet it wasn't until I saw the perfectly smooth (you could see your reflection in it like a mirror), perfectly fresh "out of the oven", perfectly pure (distilled pure, in fact) gold, on that day, that I felt like I finally got it. I honestly think I could have spent all day staring at it. It looked so attractive that it was actually physically hard to turn my head away and stop looking at it. And its attraction seemed to go even beyond the pure physical, and touch on something deep and primal within.
What is Greater Than Gold?
The deeper message here is that if a purely mechanical, scientific machine can so transform a piece of inert metal into something that seemed so magical and out-of-this-world — how much more can a supernatural, all-powerful God do? Included in this is, if we allow God to refine and transform us, how much more can God do with our own lives?
Eric Liddell understood that faith in God is worth more than gold. I'll have more to say about him in the future. For now you can read more about him here (external link). I have an excellent book written by him and there's a recent movie about his life after "Chariots of Fire". I'll write more later...
There are several places in the Bible that describe us as believers being refined by fiery trials, to emerge as new, clean, pure, and holy. Here are a few:
Beloved, don't be astonished at the fiery trial which has come upon you, to test you, as though a strange thing happened to you. But because you are partakers of Christ's sufferings, rejoice; that at the revelation of his glory also you may rejoice with exceeding joy.
If you are insulted for the name of Christ, blessed are you; because the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you. On their part he is blasphemed, but on your part he is glorified. For let none of you suffer as a murderer, or a thief, or an evil doer, or as a meddler in other men's matters.
But if one of you suffers for being a Christian, let him not be ashamed; but let him glorify God in this matter.
I will bring the third part into the fire, And will refine them as silver is refined, And will test them like gold is tested. They will call on my name, and I will hear them. I will say, 'It is my people;' And they will say, 'Yahweh is my God.'
"Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me; and the Lord, whom you seek, will suddenly come to his temple; and the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, behold, he comes!" says Yahweh of hosts.
"But who can endure the day of his coming? And who will stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner's fire, and like launderer's soap; and he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the sons of Levi, and refine them as gold and silver; and they shall offer to Yahweh offerings in righteousness.
Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasant to Yahweh, as in the days of old, and as in ancient years.
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to his great mercy became our father again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an incorruptible and undefiled inheritance that doesn't fade away, reserved in heaven for you, who by the power of God are guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.
Wherein you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while, if need be, you have been put to grief in various trials, that the proof of your faith, which is more precious than gold that perishes even though it is tested by fire, may be found to result in praise, glory, and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ — whom not having known, you love; in whom, though now you don't see him, yet believing, you rejoice greatly with joy unspeakable and full of glory — receiving the result of your faith, the salvation of your souls.
The overall message of this is that the difficulties we face in life, even though we may not like them at all, are necessary for our transformation process. Which leads to.