The instant expert: All about gold

This week Rick Arthur looks at the enduring value and allure of gold, the precious metal that has hit record prices recently.

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Float through any social event with M's fast facts. This week Rick Arthur looks at the enduring value and allure of gold, the precious metal that has hit record prices recently

THE BASICS Gold is a dense, soft, shiny metal with decorative, dental, industrial and other uses. It is a chemical element with the symbol Au and an atomic number of 79. It has been used since pre-recorded history for valuable coinage, jewellery and other arts. Gold also has been the standard for many currencies.

GOLD AS AN INVESTMENT Investors buy gold as a hedge against social, political or economic crises such as civil unrest, war or inflation. As of this writing, the price of gold peaked at a record US$1,913.50 (Dh7,037) on August 23. It has since fallen. Will it go higher? Eh, who really knows? But the Instant Expert wishes he had a lorry load of those gold bars from the vending machines at the Emirates Palace hotel and elsewhere in the UAE.

THE SYMBOLISM Humans love gold. They associate it with power, wealth, warmth, happiness, love, hope, optimism, intelligence, justice, balance, perfection and sanctity. High achievements are often rewarded with gold medals, statues and trophies.

AS GOOD AS GOLD How pervasive is gold in our cultures? Think about it. The Golden Rule. Gold cards. Gold members. Silence is golden. The golden years. The golden arches. Golden boy. A golden moment. The pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. All that glisters is not gold. Gold stars. Heart of gold. Worth its weight in gold.

CAUSE AND EFFECT, PART ONE Gold bugs around the world are acting to cash in on the new rush. In addition to selling off their jewellery or even teeth, many are panning for gold. "Some people I know are making hundreds, even thousands of dollars on the weekend," Cordell Kent, who sells do-it-yourself mining kit in Ballarat, Australia, told Reuters recently.

CAUSE AND EFFECT, PART TWO As you might expect, a surge in global crime followed gold's soaring prices. Chains are being snatched from women's throats, armed robbers are hitting jewellery shops like never before, and thieves in the US state of New Jersey stole a mining museum's nuggets worth some $400,000.

DON'T BE FOOLISH Many a miner has been taken in by the mineral pyrite, or iron pyrite, which has the nickname fool's gold. It resembles gold in its metallic lustre and brassy colour. If you're going panning, here's a tip: gold is soft and can be cut; pyrite cannot even be scratched.

THE STUFF OF LEGEND The philosopher's stone - lapis philosophorum, as the Instant Expert astonishingly recalls from his schoolboy Latin - is a legendary substance that could turn lead into gold or silver. Ancient alchemists pursued it, and the 13th-century genius Albertus Magnus is said to have discovered it and passed it to Thomas Aquinas. Still, in the 11th century, the Muslim chemist and sceptic Ibn Sina declared: "Those of the chemical craft know well that no change can be effected in the different species of substances, though they can produce the appearance of such change."

THE MIDAS TOUCH In Greek mythology, Bacchus granted King Midas the ability to turn everything he touched into gold. In the version of the tale by Nathaniel Hawthorne, A Wonder-Book for Girls and Boys (1852), Midas touches his daughter and she turns into a statue. The moral of the story: be careful what you wish for.

THE DISSENTING OPINION Rupert Wright, a perspicacious colleague in the Business section of The National, wrote recently: "I have never been a fan of gold as an investment. It has no yield and a value much beyond its worth. But it's shiny and gleams and people are attracted to it like magpies." Still, the Instant Expert regrets not buying a few ounces right after December 31, 1974, when the US ban on private gold ownership was ended. The price then? $176.27 an ounce.

Five films that sparkle

There are probably dozens of films with the word "gold" or "golden" in the title. Some favourites:

THE GOLD RUSH (1925) The silent film starring Charlie Chaplin as the Little Tramp famously shows him carving up and eating his boot.

GOLDFINGER (1964) Sean Connery as James Bond battles Harold Sakata as Oddjob, one of cinema's greatest villains.

REFLECTIONS IN A GOLDEN EYE (1967) An underrated little gem based on a Carsons McCuller novel. Directed by John Huston and starring Marlon Brando and Elizabeth Taylor in the screen giants' only film together.

MACKENNA'S GOLD (1969) One of the last of the big-budget Hollywood westerns. It stars Gregory Peck, Omar Sharif, Telly Savalas and Julie Newmar. It was shot in Super Panavision 70 and has original music by Quincy Jones.

ON GOLDEN POND (1981) It has its mawkish moments, but it's worth seeing just for the tense scenes between Henry Fonda and his long-estranged daughter Jane. Fonda finally won the Oscar for Best Actor for this, his last role, and co-star Katharine Hepburn, poignantly shaking with palsy, won her fourth for Best Actress.