Saturday, July 10, 2010

Star Dust and Us

"'Stars mimic living systems. They are born, live to maturity at metabolic rates determined by their masses, and die, spewing forth the matter by which their stellar offspring can take form. Throughout, they convert the light atoms of their birth into the heavier ones dispersed at death. The chemicals that constitute our beings were manufactured in the bowels of stars that today exist only as memories.' — George A. Seielstad, 'Cosmic Ecology,' 1983."

This editorial note was published in the Winter 2002 issue of EarthLight magazine  written by Connie Barlow:
Since 1957, scientists have known that all chemical elements (other than the simplest hydrogen and helium) were created not In the Beginning — not at the moment of the Big Bang — but very much later, and in the depths of massive stars. All the carbon and calcium in our bodies, all the silicon and oxygen in sand and computer chips — all these elements, every single atom, came into existence inside a star.

Imagine that! Inside a star! For many of us moved by the cosmic epic offered by science, there is no realization more magnificent than this: We know that we are stardust — recycled stardust from the generations of stars that preceded the birth of our own sun. Only stars at least eight times the size of our sun can take this path of elemental creation. And those that do are so busy burning hydrogen and helium into the full spectrum of elements that they blaze and die in a mere 10 million years, rather than the expected 10 billion year life span of our own modest star.

It is one thing to create the palette of elements; it is another to launch them into the galaxy. A star that forged the Periodic Table as far as iron will collapse upon itself. Then, rebounding in a supernova explosion of unimaginable brightness, the remaining heavy elements churn into existence — all the gold-leaf in an ancient Koran, all the silver in a Hanukkah menorah, all the copper in a bronze Buddha, all the tin in Christmas tinsel. All the complex atoms in your body and everything around you were at one time streaming away from just such a dying star. This is truly a miracle of Creation. The birth of chemical elements manifests divine creativity, however one may think of God. Does it not make sense to celebrate this common reality?

We can begin by telling the story of stardust in ways that inspire and delight. And we can further cultural wisdom by weaving into this story the teaching of values and virtues. What emerges will be parables of the new Cosmology. 

(Image above) DEATH BECOMES HER - CASSIOPEIA/ A Neutron or Dead Star
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Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/STScI/CXC/SAO 

In the Constellation Cassiopeia
Tycho's Supernova, the red circle visible in the upper left part of the image, is SN 1572 is a remnant of a star explosion is named after the astronomer Tycho Brahe, although he was not the only person to observe and record the supernova. When the supernova first appeared in November 1572, it was as bright as Venus and could be seen in the daytime. Over the next two years, the supernova dimmed until it could no longer be seen with the naked eye. In the 1950s, the remnants of the supernova could be seen again with the help of telescopes.

When the star exploded, it sent out a blast wave into the surrounding material, scooping up interstellar dust and gas as it went, like a snow plow. An expanding shock wave traveled into the surroundings and a reverse shock was driven back in toward the remnants of the star. Previous observations by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope indicate that the nature of the light that WISE sees from the supernova remnant is emission from dust heated by the shock wave.

To the right is a star-forming nebula of dust and gas, called S175. This cloud of material is about 3,500 light-years away and 35 light-years across. It is heated by radiation from the young, hot stars within it, and the dust within the cloud radiates infrared light.
Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA

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