Friday, September 30, 2011

We Are Stardust

I first heard the phrase in Joni Mitchell's song Woodstock: "We are stardust. We are golden. We are billion-year-old carbon." I next came across it while reading Carl Sagan's 'Cosmos.' But as with any other profound idea, it took years to sink in. Hearing it again at a recent lecture, I realized I could hear it every day for the rest of my life and still be amazed.

Think about it. In their hot, dense cores, stars are fusing light elements into the heavy ones crucial for life, such as carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus, and iron. The tiny bits of unused mass left over from these thermonuclear reactions become starlight via the most famous formula in physics, Einstein's E = mc².

We've known this for only a half century. In 1957 Alastair Cameron, in a terse 22-page paper, and Margaret and Geoffrey Burbidge, William Fowler, and Fred Hoyle, in a not-so-terse 103-pager commonly referred to as B²FH, solved the mystery of the origin of the elements. They showed that except for hydrogen, most helium, and traces of other light elements born in the mother of all creation events, the Big Bang, everything else has been cooked up in stars.

It gets better. While low-mass dwarf stars like the Sun keep most products of their reactions locked up inside like old misers, high-mass supergiant stars spread the wealth like philanthropists in self-obliterating explosions known as supernovae. Some of Earth's rarest elements (such as gold and uranium) are so scarce because they're forged only in the spectacular deaths of rare massive stars.

On average, I heard in the same lecture, each atom in our bodies has been processed through five generations of stars. So we're not just stardust—we're stardust five times over, billions of years in the making!

I don't think the profundity of this statement is universally appreciated among nonastronomers. To raise awareness of our stellar beginnings, I propose a multifaceted campaign. In addition to impressing the public with pretty pictures of distant galaxies, strange tales of bottomless-pit black holes, and the mind-bending notion that the cosmos is 13.7 billion years old, we should constantly remind people that we are, in fact, stardust.

Shorter than a haiku, it could easily be slipped into daily conversation, such as when meeting strangers:
"Hi, my name is John."
"Pleased to meet you. Did you know we're made of stardust?" (Pause for look of astonishment.)

Professors could use it to soften the delivery of bad grades: "You got a C-minus on the exam, but you're still stardust."

Waiters and waitresses could use it to tout the evening's menu: "Tonight's special is pineapple-chicken curry served over basmati rice and made from the finest stardust—like you (wink)".

Instead of advertising radio stations or used cars, airplanes could haul banners over stadiums that read, "We are stardust - Go Red Sox."

To help spread the word, weather reporters could predict: "Tomorrow's forecast calls for sunny skies with a 20% chance of precipitating stardust in the form of rain." Newspapers could trumpet their origins, together with their environmental awareness, by declaring on the front page, "Printed on 100% recycled stardust (just like you)."

Pop-ups could appear on the Internet that read, "We are stardust." After two seconds they'd explode into thousands of pixels that, sometime later, would reform into new pop-ups with the same uplifting message.

Why go to all this trouble? Because knowing this curious fact can give us pride in our origins: it's like we're descended from royalty—only better. Our stellar legacy connects us to the universe and to each other. Like the song says, we are golden—we are stardust. All of us.

--by Daniel Hudon

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