Five gold rings

28 December 2016

Interview with

Alan Calverd

Graihagh Jackson and Chris Smith are celebrating the 12 scientific days of Christmas, assisted by Hugh Hunt, Amy Thomas, James Bowers and Alan Calverd...

Gold ringsGraihagh - Moving swiftly on from bird calls to rings, it is of course time to celebrate the 5th day of Christmas...

   Everyone sings: on the fifth day of Christmas my true love gave to me five gold rings, four calling birds, three French hens, two turtle doves, and a partridge in a pear tree...

Chris - Alan Calverd, you’ve been looking into some famous gold rings in science history. What have you got for us?

Alan - I think possibly the best known gold rings in physics and medicine were the ones on the hand of Mrs Roentgen. Wilhelm Roentgen discovered X rays in 1895 and published X ray a photograph of his wife’s hand with, apparently, one very thick wedding ring on it. I’ve tried to get a reasonable copy of this photograph, and I’m rather baffled. I’ve now come across five different images, each of which claims to be Anna Bertha Roentgen’s hand with a wedding ring.

Chris - She must have a lot of hands!

Alan - Yeah. The one I think is most likely is actually of her right hand with what appears to be two quite thin rings on it. I’m still not entirely convinced. the photograph that most often appears in textbooks is of a left hand with a thick wedding ring on the ring finger. And it appears to be signed and has some sort of provenance. The problem is is that the German tradition is not to wear to rings, but to have one ring on engagement and on marriage it’s transferred from the left hand to the right hand. So now I’m prepared to believe that the likely photographs of Anna Bertha Roentgen’s hand are actually of her right hand. And I’ve now found one which is paired with a photograph of a slightly chubby woman with fairly small hands who seems to have a single thin ring on her right hand and, I believe, that’s probably the only actual photograph.

Chris - Do you not think that she was exposed to so many X rays that she just grew fifteen extra hands and that could account for the anomaly?

Alan - No, this was definitely the first X ray ever published.

Chris - I also like the way he experimented on his wife and didn’t do it on himself.

Alan - Yeah.

Chris - Interesting, obviously a brave physicist. Hugh…

Hugh - Can you actually tell that they’re right or left hands. The X ray could be flipped upside down on the photograph?

Alan - All the radiology textbooks say you always do it from the top downwards.

Hugh - Ah, so there’s some logic...

Graihagh - And James, what gives gold its special properties? Why do we like to wear it as jewellry?

James - Gold is interesting because it’s not interesting at all, really.

Graihagh - an oxymoron?

James - Yes. Because in terms of chemistry it’s actually really unreactive, which is why we can use it for so many things, and it’s actually quite easy to extract compared to other things we might use. But also that means it could last for a very long time so it’s a very good kind of measure of wealth, for example.

So, if I had a gold bar and I had it for a hundred years, it wouldn’t really change. Whereas if I had and iron bar, for example, it would probably get rust on it which is iron oxide because the the iron is reacting with the oxygens. Gold doesn’t really do that, and it’s just very malleable, it’s very easy to use, but it’s also just rare enough so that everybody can have some, but not too much.   

Chris - Amy - can you tell us about the psychology of gold though, because there’s no doubt about it, for generations people have found gold particularly valuable and attractive? So why do people a) like gold, and b) like jewellery full stop?

Amy - Oh, there’s a few  different theories about this. And I think one of the reasons why people like jewellry in general is because it can signify things which might be a little bit awkward to communicate with words. So, for example, a wedding ring perhaps; it’s there, it’s a symbol of marriage already, you don’t have to say it, it’s already there. So that’s already like a nice body que that you don't have to tell people.

Also, if you wear a necklace, you might want to draw attention to specific areas but not want to say it. so for that reason…

Chris - I’ve never thought about it like that but you’re absolutely right!

Amy - Yeah. It’s kind of like this underlying subtle signal thing, which is really cool. But then there’s more anthropological reasons to jewellery and gold is status, and monarchy, a sign of wealth. And also a sign of love and belonging if it’s something that’s bought for you by something that you love, and you wear it and you feel loved and that you belong to someone.

Chris - Wonderful! I wonder what I’m getting for Christmas...?

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