SILVER A LITTLE BIG HISTORY 770L

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1 3 SILVER A LITTLE BIG HISTORY 770L

2 SILVER A CLOSER LOOK AT THE POPULAR METAL By Big History Project, adapted by Newsela

3 It s amazing how much you can learn when you look at things through the lens of Big History. Take an element like silver. You may just think of it as a shiny metal used to make jewelry. But, it s of great importance to science. 2 3

4 The value of silver Silver is widely used in technology and medicine. It helps our cell phones and TVs work better. It even makes hospitals safer. Let s explore the many roles that silver has played throughout history. What makes silver more valuable to us than other minerals? Its beauty is one thing. The shiny metal has fascinated men and women for ages. Silver also is fairly scarce. Things that are both beautiful and rare tend to be worth a lot think of diamonds and gold. Silver is a durable metal that lasts for ages, too. And it s malleable, meaning it s easy to shape. All these qualities have made silver very useful and valuable to this day. Silver was one of the earliest forms of money. Perhaps the oldest coin was minted in modern-day Turkey about 2,700 years ago. Early metalworkers made the coins from electrum. It was an alloy (a mixture of metals) of gold and silver. Early Greek civilizations bought silver from Armenia. Transporting the metal helped grow trade throughout the Mediterranean region. Silver s importance continued as Greek civilization rose. Silver mines near the Greek city of Athens paid for the Italian lumber it bought. Athens used the lumber to build the warships that made it a naval superpower of the ancient world. The Romans would later use silver as money as well. Silver even helped advance global civilization. It connected East and West through trade. Silver was scarce in China. Nonetheless, it was much valued as currency. So, during the Middle Ages, Europeans used silver to buy Chinese goods such as gunpowder, tea, and silk. Then they carried the goods over the fabled Silk Road, a 4,000-mile road connecting China to Europe. Later, the Spanish discovered silver mines in Mexico and Peru. To move the silver, they established a sailing route across the Pacific. They traded South American silver some of it stolen for Chinese silk. Silk was incredibly desirable. Light and cool clothing could be woven from it. Spanish settlers in the hot, wet climates of Mexico, Central America, and South America wanted it very much. A 1739 Spanish silver dollar, also called a piece of eight As we ll see elsewhere in this course, when goods get traded, so do ideas. The spread of silver helped spread learning throughout the world. This increased humankind s collective learning. By the seventeenth century, Mexican pieces of eight had become the world s first global money, or currency. The U.S. dollar was based on these coins. For a long time, many U.S. coins contained silver. The Latin word for silver is argentum. What South American country sounds like that? Right Argentina! During the time of the Spanish explorers in the 1500s, Argentina was thought to be rich in what shiny metal element? Silver, of course. 4 5

5 The many uses of silver Silver also has strong powers to fight bacteria that can cause infections. Scientists first discovered this thousands of years ago. The ancient Greek doctor Hippocrates is sometimes called the father of medicine. He wrote of silver s healing properties. Early records indicate that the Phoenicians used silver containers to keep water, wine, and vinegar pure during long voyages at sea. Supernovas create most of the heavy elements in our Universe. Their explosions create temperatures hot enough to fuse hydrogen nuclei together to form larger atoms. These larger, heavier atoms helped form planets like Earth. So in a sense, silver, like everything else around you, was made from the first atoms of hydrogen. Where and when was hydrogen created? In the Big Bang itself. It turns out silver has a pretty big history! You may have heard the phrase born with a silver spoon in your mouth. That s not necessarily about being rich. In the eighteenth century, babies fed with silver spoons were thought to be healthier than those fed with spoons made from wood. Today, many hospitals fight infections with equipment that contains silver. Silver is even used in the thread of some socks. Why? The silver kills bacteria that make the socks smell bad! Silver is the best metallic conductor of electricity. It s better than copper, which is used in most electrical wires. It s even better than gold. That s why so many electronics, like your computer keyboard, rely on it. Alloys of silver are used in dentistry and photography. Even nuclear power plants use silver to operate. Silver also helps keep planes in the air. Silver creates little friction (meaning, it s slippery!). Because of that, silver is used to coat the ball bearings used in jet engines. But did you know that billions of years ago there was no silver anywhere in the Universe? So where did it come from? Like most other elements, silver was created in dying stars. As stars die they can explode in a giant flash of light called a supernova. A single supernova can create more energy than our Sun does in its entire life. 6 7

6 Image credits A Greek silver tetradrachm from about 160 BCE Hoberman Collection/CORBIS A 1739 Spanish silver dollar, public domain Articles leveled by Newsela have been adjusted along several dimensions of text complexity including sentence structure, vocabulary and organization. The number followed by L indicates the Lexile measure of the article. For more information on Lexile measures and how they correspond to grade levels: To learn more about Newsela, visit The Lexile Framework for Reading The Lexile Framework for Reading evaluates reading ability and text complexity on the same developmental scale. Unlike other measurement systems, the Lexile Framework determines reading ability based on actual assessments, rather than generalized age or grade levels. Recognized as the standard for matching readers with texts, tens of millions of students worldwide receive a Lexile measure that helps them find targeted readings from the more than 100 million articles, books and websites that have been measured. Lexile measures connect learners of all ages with resources at the right level of challenge and monitors their progress toward state and national proficiency standards. More information about the Lexile Framework can be found at 8 9

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