Children of Stardust

In the last post of the Beth's Q&A we tried to understand four basic forces and their corresponding particle carriers or bosons. With almost certain discovery of the Higgs boson physicist completed the search for this last mystery of the standard model and we now know how larger particles get their mass and how interact with each other. Now is the time to bring this story up one level and write about chemical elements representing basic 'lego' blocks of almost everything in the universe we currently comprehend. Hmm, everything but mysterious dark matter that we still don't have a clue what it's made of.

Every now and again in media (mostly internet) we can read about how we all are made out of stars and other violent events in the universe dating back in time even so far in the past to the Big Bang itself. Following some of this articles Beth posted another idea for the thread and I am paraphrasing her thoughts: "I keep reading we are made from the elements that came to us via Big Bang. Say I am pregnant. I make their iron new (or reusing the iron from the food). How can it be from the Big Bang?". Indeed where all those prime ingredients came from and how they are made of? But first, let us define some boundaries here, this will not be a post about biology or organic chemistry, just a short story about what we know today as "chemical elements" in periodic table also known as Mendeleev's table, named after Russian scientist who first proposed periodic table of all 118 elements we are familiar today. They all are sorted out by atomic number or number of protons in atomic core. If the atom is not charged, the number of electrons is the same as the number of protons. If we look the table and study all the elements we will find that not all of them can be found on Earth, 20 of them are made in laboratories in various experimental nuclear processes and many of them are unstable, meaning that they are radioactive and decay over time into lighter elements. I still remember days when my father brought home radioactive cobalt in lead shell and stored it on the shelf in his office for a week or two. He was university professor of electronics and at the time he was building a Geiger counter for his college laboratory and to proper test Geiger–Müller tubes he found cheap at some military junk yard, he needed something heavily radioactive. I was little afraid to enter the room and always looked from the distance whether or not lead chamber was still there and cobalt was not on the loose. I was elementary school pupil then but have to admit even today I am little afraid of those things. They are really dangerous for all organic tissues and organs. We are simply too vulnerable and sensitive.

I am sure periodic table of all elements will continue to add new members in the future but really where all those elements came from in the first place? We saw that some elements, especially those heavy in atomic number are possible to create in laboratories, but as the element is lighter, ironically speaking, the laboratory capable of producing it has to be larger and larger and when we come to the hydrogen, the lightest element in the universe the only machine powered enough to made it on a heavy scale is long gone and its name is Big Bang. I am not talking about separating water into prime ingredients or creating isotopes of the same elements (with different number of neutrons in their core) but rather about a machine able to make one proton orbiting by one electron based on nuclear reaction. In a nutshell, next time, when you see hydrogen atom the chance that it came directly from the origin of our universe is almost 100%. Keeping in mind that human body is made mostly out of water (65-90%), the term that we are 'Children of Stars' is maybe overrated and we could easily change it into 'Children of Big Bang', considering one hydrogen atom in every water molecule.

However, I still prefer the former statement. Even though we captured lots of hydrogen atoms in our bodies, the other prime ingredients in our cells are made elsewhere. The Big Bang only created all the conditions for what happened next, or for the time when first star was born. The ultimate factory where almost all elements presented in the periodic table are created:

When I thought about humans and our cells first to come to my mind is not hydrogen or water. Actually the one in higher level of importance is carbon, the basic ingredient of all organic molecules in every cell. The prime ingredient of our very DNA molecule. Carbon and all other elements up to iron are made deep in stars, within the process called stellar nucleosynthesis, nuclear fusion reaction happening in the cores of all stars. The heaviest element in the process, iron, probably one of the most common element within Earth core, is the ultimate fate of all stars. When they transform all lighter elements (starting with hydrogen, through stasis of production of helium, lithium, carbon, neon, oxygen, etc.) into iron the process ended and star closes its factory. Depending on the resulting mass of the iron core they either collapse into white dwarfs or explode in violent explosions known as supernovae continuing their nuclear reaction and transforming iron atoms into even heavier elements. Keeping in mind the number of stars in our galaxy alone, number of stars that end in supernovae explosion are rare. Therefore, the elements heavier than iron are also rare, this is why gold or platinum are expensive and hard to find, but this also means that, for example in our own planetary system way back in some point in distant past (billions of years before our Sun is born) some supernovae explosion happened in the galactic neighborhood leaving all the elements floating in space and all the gold many love to wear on their necks, fingers, wrists, etc. is veeeryyy old.

To conclude and answer the original question, the elements produced in stars and supernovae explosions (and also other various cosmic processes) are, looking it from the process itself, just a waste of the nuclear reactions. All the elements out there are just a stardust from one stellar perspective. But, according to saying "One Man's Junk Another Man's Gold", what is just a dust for a star for us it means life. I happen to know exact quotation of how much all this means to us. Here it is: "Now, do you see our tree? Everything that made that giant tree is already contained inside this tiny little seed. All it needs is some time, a little bit of sunshine and rain, and voilà!". If you didn't recognized it is from the movie "Bugs Life", the scene where Flik explains Dot how one small seed grows into giant tree. However, life is far more complex comparing to prime elements and organic chemistry and biology is another fascinated world I am sure I will write about in some future posts. Until then please take little more time of yours and listen what astrophysicist Dr. Neil DeGrasse Tyson said when he was asked by a reader of TIME magazine, "What is the most astounding fact you can share with us about the Universe?"

I am not a scientist but when I am thinking of different stars, one thing about their nuclear reaction intrigues me. Stars in their role of fusion reactors are located in different area of the universe. Also, they are not the same, some are heavier, some have stronger magnetic field and basically they represents different 'factories' in production of the same thing. What intrigues me is whether or not the product of two different stars is really unique? Is helium produced in our Sun different from the one made in Alpha Centauri? Do they differ on a small sub-atomic level and maybe one day we could be able to scan their origin? Or they are exactly the same? This question is especially interesting looking at it from the string theory point of view where basic building blocks of elementary particles are strings vibrating in different frequencies and simultaneously exist in 11 dimensions. Common logic says they are identical but I am still wondering about new breakthrough discoveries still waiting in the future especially in particle physics and science in general.


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