Tag Archives: special relativity

Why is Gold Yellow? The Chemistry of GOLD

Chemistry of GOLD jameskennedymonash v2

Why is Gold yellow? Special relativity causes length contractions and time dilations in objects that travel at speeds approaching the speed of light. The valence electrons of large atoms such as gold have such high energies that their speeds actually approach the speed of light—and the relativistic effects on those electrons can become quite large.

Special relativity changes the energy levels of the 5d orbital in a gold atom so that the energy difference between 5d and 6s orbitals equals the energy of a ‘blue’ photon. Gold thus absorbs blue light when electrons are elevated from the 5d to the 6s orbitals, while other metals do not. These special relativistic changes to the energy levels of atomic orbitals are slightly different for each element.

Relativistic contractions on gold’s valence electrons (the 6s subshell) pull the 6s electron very close to the nucleus. Being closer to the nucleus makes the 6s electron less accessible to any potential reactants. Special relativity is not only the reason for gold’s yellow colour but also for its very low reactivity! ●