Science Sunday – Personal Thoughts

These are some things that hydrogen atoms do, given 15 billion years of cosmic evolution.

-Carl Sagan

For a more down home example, look out your window, or at anything, really. Just think, or read these words. That act is also the result of hydrogen and time given the laws of physics present in our universe. Carl Sagan’s quote applies to everything. Its an inescapable fact from a very obvious and beautiful sentiment. Let’s take a step back though and get a little more local.

You could fit more than 1,000 Earth’s inside of Jupiter. That’s 100 dollars but in pennies. Two dollars in rolls of pennies is roughly the size of a wallet. Think about the size of your wallet. Now imagine five-hundred wallets. That’s about the size in bulk of two dollars in pennies 500 times over.  Think of how many pennies…

Its tedious to do this type of unraveling, but stick with me just a few lines longer. It’s just, the human brain is incredibly stupid in a couple of ways and one of them is extrapolating large numbers. Ever guessed how many jelly beans are in the sinister carnies jar at the fair? Have you ever even seen someone guess that number? No, you probably haven’t because we humans are very bad at associating size to volume and extrapolating large numbers. It gets very difficult very fast.

This is also a little difficult, but try to imagine 1,321 Earths. That’s about how many could fit inside Jupiter. They could. Jupiter has no solid ground. It is not a rocky world like Mercury, Venus, Earth or Mars. Jupiter is a giant ball of gas. There’s a few other familiar objects in our Solar System that are made of gas. One of them is the Sun: Sol.

It is possible for worlds like Jupiter to become like our star, Sol. Well, it was possible, when gas was accreting in the early days of the Solar System. If Jupiter had sucked up between 9- 20 times its current mass, it would have very probably become a star. A weak star, but still burning.

Once a planetary object becomes sufficiently massive, it ignites. The gravitational forces on the planet’s core become so extreme that hydrogen atoms begin to fuse to make helium. Incidentally, this is also the fabled fusion-fission reaction commonly known as cold fusion*. Hydrogen is also the most abundant stuff in the Universe. Outside of the black vacuum of space, you can’t not be nearby some hydrogen. It’s a fantastic building block.

Stars, besides giving off light and heat, are factories for elements. They fuse together hydrogen into helium and other elements. Certain stars can only give off certain types of elements. I’m not sufficiently well read enough to disambiguate further, but I can at least assert that much. Red giants, white dwarfs, brown dwarfs, middle-of-the-road stars like ours, et cetera; they all have their own catalogue of make-able elements.

We humans – and everything else alive: plants, animals, fungus, bacteria – are made of the elements that are created in stars, in their cores. These elements are shot out across space whenever the star dies, it’s outer shell gets pushed off by the loss of anymore elements to fuse . More famously, these materials are shot off when a star goes Super Nova and blasts the material across the galaxy.

That’s you and me. Those materials, they’re carbon, nitrogen, oxygen. You’ve heard carbon-based life. It’s the only kind we know and it’s everything on Earth. Everything green or otherwise alive. Made in the center of stars. These great big hulking balls of gas, that got so big the pressure exerted at the very, deep down center of them caused some of the smallest stuff there is to start to fuse together, giving off massive amounts of energy. Ignition. Light and heat. And it happens everywhere, across distances we can only see with very sophisticated telescopes. Inside of magnificently beautiful stellar nurseries, in distant supernovas, towards far off galaxies.

It’s poetic and beautiful and also horrifying. You and I, our lives and everything there is. We are small. But we’re part of this. And this is all science. I know everyone doesn’t get excited by all that mass of letters up there. But, if you’re like me something in your brain ticked. It’s a strange type of love.

More star science from NASA

Note: I’m not 100% on the exact accuracy of a few things which I’ve underlined. I tried to do some gumshoe research and got a lot of blanks, but you can be sure the opening bit about mass and volume are accurate.

*Step 1: fuse two atoms to make heavier elements. Step 2: split this combination into two atoms. Step 3: repeat.

If you need more proof that this would provide enough energy, look directly at the sun for just a split second. Fusion is such an energetic reaction that over ~93 million miles, it still burns your photo receptors. The fission part? That’s a nuclear bomb.


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