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Humans have been captivated by diamonds, the planet’s hardest natural material, for nearly five thousand years. In Egypt, they were incorporated into the ankh, symbolizing the sun. People in ancient India thought they must be created by lightning, and attracted it; they also expected the stones could stave off danger (a belief somewhat at odds with the lightning-attractor thing). Greeks and Romans found the stones much more sacred, seeing them as tears of the gods. Rather poetically, they also thought the gems might be shards of fallen stars. At various times, people have thought diamonds to be capable of conferring invincibility, of healing, and of sealing the deal on romantic love.

The truth of diamonds is almost as extraordinary as all of those beliefs. They are formed of the stuff of life itself: carbon. Extraordinarily hard, they can withstand enough pressure to recreate the extreme conditions under which they were born; and yet, subjected to the right combination of heat and oxygen, they’ll vanish in a puff of carbon dioxide. They form naturally in only a few places on Earth: deep beneath continental cratons, or in the shock of a meteorite strike. Most of them are billions of years old, and we’re not even sure if they’re still being formed beneath the crust today. And they’re brought to the Earth’s surface by some of the most bizarre eruptions in our planet’s history.

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Category: Science