Saturday, October 01, 2005

We are all made of stardust

Sounds like a really bad seventies love song by Air Supply right? Wrong. It’s the truth. That’s right. As much as the crooners of old are scarce to admit the idea of stardust is not new. It’s old. Very old. Like beginning of time old. O.K. That’s just crazy because the universe began at moment zero for argument’s sake and stars did not star burning until about one million years later. Pretty quick considering the universe is about 15,000,000,000 years old. That’s fifteen billion! Since then a lot has happened. Stars formed and exploded and reformed from the clouds of dust roaming the universe. See a star forms when gas and dust coalesces and forms a ball of hydrogen that falls together, heats up and begins fusing atoms. We don’t really know exactly how or why this happens but it does. Hydrogen begins a nuclear reaction at about 15,000,000 degrees Celsius. So you’d expect it to take a little time. The Hydrogen fuses at this temperature and through a process releases energy and makes Helium.

Starlight is created by nuclear reaction, not chemical burning of the type that creates a romantic evening by the fire or the Yule Log. So stars are interesting little engines. They fuse atoms to become bigger atoms. Then they fuse to become bigger atoms and soon you have some poster in high school science class telling you how all these elements fit together. That’s the periodic table. Hydrogen will become helium, helium will become carbon, carbon becomes nitrogen and in turn it becomes oxygen and so on and so on and… You get the picture. If you know anything about biology (and I don’t) then you know the basic building blocks of life are there. We’re carbon based creatures. The elements are spread throughout the universe when stars age and explode. They just puff out the outer surface and become a beautiful nebula that you see in the Hubble Space Telescope pictures. That stuff floats through the galaxy and eventually lands somewhere or becomes part of another star. Big huge gas clouds again become stars and so on and so on and…

Here’s what I’m getting at, the universe is this big repetitious machine that keeps producing elements that get recycled and remade. You’d think that by now after 15,000,000,000 years that we’d be a little scarce on the simple elements and heavy on the side of carbon and other stuff. Guess what? You’re wrong. Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe. It’s what makes up about 76% of the place. You couldn’t tell by looking around your house but it’s true. Next is helium at about 24%. There is almost no other percentage detectable elements out here! Again, by looking around you’d say that scientists are crazy and you’d be right but not for that reason. By mass, stars and gas clouds far outweigh everything else so you don’t find too much other elements floating around. It’s all kinda compacted together in places like comets or your intestines. We’re the result of billions of years of stars exploding and reemerging. That’s right all that work for us. Sounds a little silly but it’s true. And we may just be a happy accident in any case.

So we are all made of stardust. I like the sound of it. Sounds romantic. Even if in this crazy universe we are all just a fortunate mistake and that our complicated little bodies mean very little in the scheme of things. I like the sound of the fact that we are all stardust. Of course because most of the rest of the universe on average is homogenous (it’s pretty much all mixed together in equal parts) and isotropic (everywhere you look it’s the same) we’re pretty special beings down here. The brain is the most complicated place in the universe that we know of.

Even when we die our bodies become part of the mixture again and then, who knows, in a few billion years or so the sun will swell and absorb everything on earth making us a part of the universal mixture again. That’s romantic too. Everything will convert to fuel for the sun to turn into energy and be released back to the void as dust and gas and radiation. We truly become dust again like the good book says. Or we become light which according to some interpretations is what we are anyway.

When Einstein calculated his Special theory of Relativity he stuck a little idea in there calle E=MC2 which changed the world. His idea was simply beautiful. Energy equals Mass times the Speed of Light Squared. Every bit of matter is compact energy and every bit of energy is radiated mass. The potential was great and terrible once we figured out how to convert mass to energy quickly. But the idea presented by Einstein in such a simple equation was masterful. Enegery measured in Ergs can be converted directly from Mass measured in Grams times and incredible number which is the speed of light measured in centimeters, squared. So 1 gram of matter can be converted to 30,000,000,000 times 30,000,000,000 ergs or 900,000,000,000,000,000,000 ergs. That’s a lot of ergs! I don’t even know what number that is or even what amount of energy that relates to but I bet it’s a lot. With the right technology that can be harnessed in the safest possible way we can rid ourselves of the Oil Cartels in one fell swoop. Of course nobody wants a nuclear reactor in their neighborhood and if you look at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl you can see why.

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