Diamonds – William Crookes



SENSATIONAL as is the story of the diamond industry in South Africa, quite another aspect fixes the attention of the chemist. The diamonds come out of the mines, but how did they get in ? How were they formed ? What is their origin ?

Gardner Williams, who knows more about diamonds than any man living, is little inclined to indulge in speculation. In his fascinating book he frankly says : ” I have been frequently asked, ‘ What is your theory of the original crystallisation of the diamond ? ‘

And the answer has always been, ‘ I have none ; for after seventeen years of thoughtful study, coupled with practical research, I find that it is easier to ” drive a coach and four ” through most theories that have been propounded than to suggest one which would be based on any non-assailable data.’

All that can be said is that in some unknown manner carbon, which existed deep down in the internal regions of the earth, was changed from its black and uninviting appearance to the most beautiful gem which ever saw the light of day.”

Another diamond theory appeals to the imagination. It is said the diamond is a gift from Heaven, conveyed to earth in meteoric showers. The suggestion, I believe, was first broached by A. Meydenbauer,* who says, ” The diamond can only be of cosmic origin, having fallen as a meteorite at later periods of the earth’s formation.

The available localities of the diamond contain the residues of not very compact meteoric masses which may, perhaps, have fallen in prehistoric ages, and which have penetrated more or less deeply, according to the more or less resistant character of the surface where they fell.

Their remains are crumbling away on exposure to the air and sun, and the rain has long ago washed away all prominent masses. The enclosed diamonds have remained scattered in the river beds, while the fine light matrix has been swept away.”

According to this hypothesis, the so-called volcanic pipes are simply holes bored in the solid earth by the impact of monstrous meteors— the larger masses boring the holes, while the smaller masses, disintegrating in their fall, distributed diamonds broadcast.

Bizarre as such a theory appears, I am bound to say there are many circumstances which show that the notion of the heavens raining diamonds is not impossible. The most striking confirmation of the meteoric theory comes from Arizona.

Here, on a broad open plain, over an area about five miles in diameter, have been scattered one or two thousand masses of metallic iron, the fragments varying in weight from half a ton to a fraction of an ounce. There is no doubt these masses formed part of a meteoric shower, although no record exists as to when the fall took place.

Curiously enough, near the centre, where most of the meteorites have been found, is a crater with raised edges three-quarters of a mile in diameter and about 600 feet deep, bearing exactly the appearance which would be produced had a mighty mass of iron struck the ground and buried itself deep under the surface.

Altogether, ten tons of this iron have been collected, and specimens of the Canyon Diablo meteorite are in most collectors’ cabinets. An ardent mineralogist—the late Dr. Foote—cutting a section of this meteorite, found the tools were injured by something vastly harder than metallic iron.

He examined the specimen chemically, and soon after announced to the scientific world that the Canyon Diablo meteorite contained black and transparent diamonds. This startling discovery was afterwards verified by Professors Moissan and Friedel, and Moissan, working on 183 kilogrammes of the Canyon Diablo meteorite, has recently found smooth black diamonds and transparent diamonds in the form of octahedra with rounded edges, together with green, hexagonal crystals of carbon silicide.

The presence of carbon silicide in the meteorite shows that it must at some time have experienced the temperature of the electric furnace. Since this revelation the search for diamonds in meteorites has occupied the attention of chemists all over the world.

Fig. 23 A, C, and D, are reproductions of photographs of true diamonds I myself have extracted from the Canyon Diablo meteorite. Under atmospheric influences the iron would rapidly oxidise and rust away, colouring the adjacent soil with red oxide of iron. The meteoric diamonds would be unaffected and left on the surface of the soil, to be found haphazard when oxidation had removed the last proof of their celestial origin.

That there are still lumps of iron left at Arizona is merely due to the extreme dryness of the climate and the comparatively short time that the iron has been on our planet. We are here witnesses to the course of an event which may have happened in geologic times anywhere on the earth’s surface.

Although in Arizona diamonds have fallen from the skies, confounding our senses, this descent of precious stones is what may be called a freak of nature rather than a normal occurrence. To the modern student of science there is no great difference between the composition of our earth and that of extra-terrestrial masses.

The mineral peridot is a constant extra-terrestrial visitor, present in most meteorites. And yet no one doubts that peridot is also a true constituent of rocks formed on this earth. The spectroscope reveals that the elementary composition of the stars and the earth are pretty much the same ; and the spectroscope also shows that meteorites have as much of earth as of heaven in their composition.

Indeed, not only are the selfsame elements present in meteorites, but they are combined in the same way to form the same minerals as in the crust of the earth. It is certain from observations I have made, corroborated by experience gained in the laboratory, that iron at a high temperature and under great pressure—conditions existent at great depths below the surface of the earth—acts as the long-sought solvent for carbon, and will allow it to crystallise out in the form of diamond.

But it is also certain, from the evidence afforded by the Arizona and other meteorites, that similar conditions have existed among bodies in space, and that on more than one occasion a meteorite freighted with jewels has fallen as a star from the sky.