© Glendon Mellow, The Flying Trilobite

carl…is that you?

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I can’t remember the last time I was so delighted by an essay that I actually sat down and recopied it. Probably something by Carl Sagan. Here’s an excerpt of something that’s very much up Carl’s alley — an alley that happens to run smack-dab into my own.

From Sky and Telescope, August 2007, p. 102:

We Are Stardust: Spread the Word
BY DANIEL HUDON

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 matter 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 half a century. In 1957 Alastair Cameron, Margaret and Geoffrey Burbidge, William Fowler, and Fred Hoyle 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 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, high-mass supergiant stars spread the wealth 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!

Daniel goes on to suggest that we all remind each other of this incredibly profound fact in everyday exchanges (“Hi, my name is John. “Pleased to meet you. Did you know we’re made of stardust?”). He concludes:

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.

If your kids had King Arthur as an ancestor, you’d coo it to them in their cribs. But have you told them yet that they’re descended from the stars? If they don’t know yet — geez, folks, what are you waiting for?

(For the complete Hudon essay, pick up the August S&T and flip to the back.)

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This was written on Friday, 31. August 2007 at 20:33 and was filed under Parenting, Science, wonder. You can keep up with the comments to this article by using the RSS-Feed.

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