COLUMN: Look up in the sky!

Diamonds have the highest hardness and thermal conductivity, their name comes from the ancient Greek word ‘adamas’ meaning ‘unbreakable.’

What’s the big attraction of diamonds? Well, they’re dazzlingly beautiful for one thing. Then there’s their relative rarity.  And then there’s the hardness. Diamonds have the highest hardness and thermal conductivity of any bulk material. Their very name comes from the ancient Greek word ‘adamas’ meaning ‘unbreakable’.

Amazing how the human head can be turned by a miniscule chunk of glorified coal. That’s all a diamond is — a lump of coal that’s been to college. A ‘metastable allotrope of carbon’, if you want to get fancy. A diamond is only a few electrons from the carbon that makes a lump of coal or the graphite in your pencil, but that’s like saying a carafe of cider vinegar and a bottle of Chateau Lafitte 1987 are kissing cousins. It’s true, but it’s misleading.

Besides, it takes a lot longer to make a diamond than wine — about two billion years longer. Diamonds are like geological tarts baked under great heat and pressure for millennia near the Earth’s core. It’s only thanks to subterranean  eruptions and magma upheavals that diamonds ever get close to the Earth’s surface.

Yet Mother Earth has spewed up some beauties — like the Cullinan diamond. In 1905 a South African mine inspector making the rounds spotted a wink of light on the wall of a mineshaft. It was so bright he figured it was a piece of glass put there by a practical joker. Using his pen knife he winkled out the largest gem quality diamond ever found, more than half a kilo and the size of a football.

Nothing like the Cullinan has been dug up in Canada, but we’re doing alright. Canada is the third-largest diamond producer in the world. It doesn’t get a lot of news because all the action is in the far north, where diamond mines have been pumping billions of dollars into the economy for the last 25 years.

Humans are nuts about diamonds.  Indian rajahs were giving them to their sweeties centuries ago. Napoleon wooed Josephine with a diamond necklace. Richard Burton dropped a rock on Liz Taylor, bragging “this diamond has so many carats it’s practically a turnip.” It was pretty big alright, more than 64 carats, but it was no Cullinan.

And the Cullinan, come to that, is no PSR J1719-1948. That is the astonishingly unsexy name of the most humongous diamond ever. Big? It makes the Cullinan look like a sesame seed, or a fleck of dandruff… a gas molecule! PSR J1719-1948 is five times the size of planet Earth.

Unfortunately for would-be exploiters the diamond planet resides far away in the Serpens Claudia constellation. A planet that is One. Pure. Diamond.

Now there’s a diamond in the sky for Lucy, or Marilyn. She purred it best: “A kiss on the cheek might be quite continental, but diamonds are a girl’s best friend.”

— Arthur Black lives on Saltspring Island. His column appears every Tuesday in The NEWS. E-mail: arblack43@shaw.ca.