Tuesday, December 9, 2014

The ideal wedding ring.

What a couple hundred dollars' worth of machining and grade 316 stainless steel looks like.


My mind has been thoroughly wandering lately, and it settled upon an interesting thought experiment a while back: what is the ideal wedding ring?  It appears that I have followed CGP Grey's model, and got so excited about my idea that I wanted to talk to everyone about it, ran out of real-life people who would listen to me, and decided to talk to you, my dear, monocled, top-hatted, stylish, and not at all robot audience.

I'll start by saying that I don't actually judge the choice of wedding rings of others, different types and styles please the eye of the wide variety of people out there.  If your ring makes you happy, I'm happy you're happy.  That said, ladies, pay attention.  If you wish to lock up a man like me (and who wouldn't want that?), you'll need to consider the following.

The standard wedding ring is one or several diamonds mounted on a gold band, both materials of variable purity.  Diamonds specifically have an interesting series of characteristics upon which they are judged, and different impurities will impart different colours to the stone.  Gold, also, will have a variety of other elements present, and its purity is expressed in carats (or 'karats'), because what humanity really needs is another useless unit that could easily be expressed as purity by weight or atomic percentages.

Pictured: an affront to basic human decency and logic.  Source.
Diamonds specifically are a source of ire for me and fellow logical, beautiful man Rob.  To understand why, one must first appreciate many of the world's diamond mines are run by De Beers, a cartel which was close to a monopoly, and maintains generally shady business practices.  This includes withholding stockpiles of diamonds and limiting supply to create an artificially high price, flooding the market with diamonds similar to its competitors to drive them out of business, and keeping a limited, approved number of purchasers.  Generally, diamonds are not worth nearly as much as we pay for them because the supply is deliberately limited.

Further, the diamond ring as a wedding/engagement ring was a product of marketing in the early twentieth century.  Where wedding or engagement bands would often feature gemstones like rubies (because rubies are red, and red so obviously equals love), it was drilled into the consumer that diamonds were forever, and families were encouraged to purchase them to use as valuable heirlooms (despite the fact that the resale market is horrendous).  Young women especially were told to expect a diamond if the chap in question really loved her, and the films of the time ended up featuring many a luxurious diamond.

So diamonds.  They're not worth nearly what we pay for them, and the reason we expect them is entirely due to marketing.  And on the note of marketing, specifically that which says diamonds are forever.  Diamonds are less energetically stable than graphite (the stuff in your pencil), and over the course of the universe, diamonds will slowly but surely decay into graphite.  Not at all the symbolism you want in a wedding band.

Now, let's tackle gold.  Gold is known as a noble metal, it is quite unreactive and as a result can be found in veins underground in its natural state.  This is quite unlike the more reactive metals like aluminum (or aluminium, if we're sticking to IUPAC standards) which can be found almost exclusively as a mineral which requires refining to reduce to a metal.  Human beings have long prized gold for its shininess, the fact we can find it in its natural state, and its malleability (the pure stuff is very soft, which is why you see Olympic athletes biting their medals).  In fact, these all make gold useful for coins, and that's basically why we like gold so much.  Its resistance to corrosion and good conductivity make it useful for electronics, and it has some fringe uses in chemical catalysts, but that's about all the uses that gold has for us.  In an excellent episode of The Invisible Hand, they discuss the relative merits of gold and chickens as currency in a post-apocalyptic society.  A conclusion of the show was that gold is only valuable because it has been so intrinsically tied to coinage and worth for so long, its value is almost entirely ascribed.  Frankly, it might as well be a tulip for all the good it does us.

Aqua Regia.  Source.

An interesting consequence of gold's nobility is that very few things can dissolve it.  Aqua regia is one such acidic mixture, hydrochloric acid combined with nitric acid.  In fact, there's a neat story in that Wikipedia post about some Nobel Laureates fleeing prior to Nazi invasion.  A Hungarian chemist named Hevesy dissolved the gold medallions in aqua regia so that they wouldn't be discovered, and after the war he returned to find the solutions untouched.  The gold was recovered, and the medallions re-struck.  But I digress.  Gold dissolves in only a few things, and aqua regia is one of them.

This, of course brings me to the ideal wedding ring material: stainless steel.  Stainless steel is built on the foundation of steel, iron combined with just enough carbon to make it hard and durable.  Stainless steel is quite a hard metal, very tough, very durable.  This is combined with various amounts of chromium and molybdenum to protect it from corrosion.  Specifically, as steel undergoes corrosive attack, the iron will be eaten away with comparative ease, but the chromium and molybdenum will not.  They will remain and gradually build a resistant layer which will protect the integrity of the base material.  It's not unlike a marriage, really.  It's a bit vulnerable in the beginning, but it gets tougher and more protected the longer it lasts, the more tests it faces.

Axes titles say it all, really.  Source.

And, to deal with the idea of "forever."  Above is a figure depicting the average binding energy per nucleon (a proton or neutron) vs the number of nucleons in a nucleus.  You'll notice that right up at the top there, you have iron.  The long and short of this figure is how much energy is holding a nucleus today.  The elements at either side of the chart, hydrogen and uranium, are both nuclear fuels and will release tremendous amounts of energy, particularly when in bomb form.  Iron, however, will not.  Iron and nickel are two of the most stable elements in the universe.  Nickel is only slightly more stable, but apparently is less abundant because of the mechanisms which nuclear reactions follow.  Despite being more stable, it's easier for stars to fuse the elements into iron than nickel.  Isn't science neat?

So, let's talk about how long forever will be.  The universe will meet one of three ends: it will expand until it falls back upon itself; it will expand to a point where it eventually stops and rests; or it will expand into infinity for all of time.  My two cents is that the first scenario (the heat death of the universe), doesn't seem terribly likely given that the universe's expansion is accelerating.  The other two scenarios will end with the universe expanding and cooling until it meets an icy end.  The only way that iron is converted into a heavier element is if it is found in the heart of a star before a supernova.  Explosive star death is the source of all the elements heavier than iron, because energy is required to fuse these more massive elements.  As the outer layers of a star collapse upon its core, the tremendous heat will fuse the heaviest elements and the explosion will fling them outwards.  So unless your wedding ring finds itself in the heart of a supernova (unlikely), the iron from the steel will last into the most literal form of eternity that we can comprehend.

So what have we learned?  Diamonds are locked in an artificial market, will gradually decay into graphite, and are only strongly desired because of strong marketing.  Gold, similarly is only as valuable as it is because we lose our collective minds when we see sparkly things.  Even at the end of that episode of the Invisible Hand, they ask the proponent of gold for his thoughts after explaining the actual value of gold, and his answer basically amounted to "Well, if you're not going to use gold as a currency, what else are you going to use?"  Stainless steel, in contrast, is more than skin-deep beauty.  It is much tougher than soft gold, and it will last the test of time much better than gold.  And speaking from experience, the grade 316 stuff will resist even boiling aqua region for all its worth.  I've spent hours trying to dissolve small filings of it.  That's the kind of symbolism you want in a token of love to one another.


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