Future Earth

Why are we here & where do we come from?

11 Comments 23 March 2011

So begins Stardust, Brian Cox’s second instalment of the wonderful Wonders of the Universe on BBC One. I highly recommend it and if you have missed it, all three episodes are still available on iPlayer.

The premise of Stardust is that we are all born from the destruction of stars, which sounds far-fetched. But it’s not at all. Brian Cox’s starting point in Wonders of the Universe is also that of Uma Jakobsdóttir in The Human Race: that every atom in our bodies was once part of something else, be it a dinosaur, a dormouse or a tree. Everything is made from the same basic ingredients and chemical elements, which are the building blocks of everything on earth. When living things die, their physical elements are released back into the world so they can continue the cycle of creation, usually as something else. So far, so good?

In The Human Race, Uma explains how we are comprised at an atomic level. Her theory is a critical cog in her explanation of her “creation”, which she believes has the power to halt global warming. Brian Cox takes this premise in a slightly different, but no less interesting direction, by explaining where the elements of which we are composed actually come from. His premise in Wonders of the Universe is that “we are based entirely on physics of cosmology…we are made by the Universe…every atom in our bodies was created out in deep space”.

It’s not as crazy as it sounds. His hypothesis is that the earth is comprised of just 92 chemical elements and that everything beyond earth is made of those same 92 elements. The moon is rich in helium, silver and water. Mars is rich in iron, hence its red colour. Venus’ atmosphere is thick with sulphur and Neptune is rich in organic molecules like methane. We know this and we can prove it. It is even the case in places we haven’t been able to travel to, such as the star Proxima Centauri, which is 4.2 light years away from earth; or the nearest galaxy, Andromeda, which is a staggering 2.5 million light years away.

Science we can measure

The reason we know all of this is because we can test it. When you burn an element, it gives off light containing its own unique set of colours. For example, sodium is yellow, potassium is lilac and copper is blue. Each element also absorbs light of the same colour. This property tells us what stars are made of. We are able to do this by analysing the spectrum of light emitted by whatever we are looking at in the night sky. The colour markers tell us what elements are being emitted and are therefore included in the makeup of the star. This is the case for every star in the sky.

However, Brian Cox takes this principle even further. In Wonders of the Universe he examines how these elements were created in the first place and in doing so, gives us a crash course in nuclear fusion. His great gift is his ability to make such a complex subject accessible and understandable. His focus is subatomic particles, such as quarks, which bond together to form neutrons and protons. These are the building blocks of all atomic nuclei and elements, and are at the heart of all atoms. Within the atom, protons and neutrons are assembled to build up the elements. As Brian Cox explains, it’s very simple. In fact it’s child play!

A “simple and beautiful” process

The simplest structure is a single proton, the nucleus of the simplest chemical element, hydrogen. From this starting point you can create the other elements. The first stage is to fuse two protons together. One of the protons then becomes a neutron and that is deuterium. Take two deuterium atoms and we get helium, the second-simplest element. Then it is a question of adding more protons and neutrons in order to build more complex elements, eventually forming the most complex elements in the universe. Brian Cox describes this process as both “simple and beautiful”.

However there is only one place where this process can happen. A star. Stars are the only furnaces sufficiently hot and dense to fuse atoms together. Interestingly, the Sun is 6,000 °C at its surface and this is not nearly hot enough to power the fusion of atoms. Towards the core of the Sun, temperatures reach 15,000,000 °C and this is where simple fusion occurs. This process converts one element into another and generates all of the Earth’s heat and light. For all its power, however the Sun can only convert hydrogen into helium. Other elements, such as carbon – upon which all life is dependent – are far too complex and require something so powerful that it can generate temperatures in excess of 100,000,000 °C.

That “something” is the death of a star.

The final moment of a star’s existence can produce upwards of 26 of the basic elements including hydrogen, helium, carbon and oxygen. As a result, the fusion of atoms and our consequent existence is all down to the final death throes of a star.

It fits nicely in with the cycle of life with which we are all so familiar. Except, of course, that this is played out on a celestial scale, in which our life comes from the dying breath of a star.

Brilliant stuff. I will be definitely be buying the Wonders of the Universe book that accompanies this series.

This post was selected for the 6th April 2011 edition of Everything Home Blog Carnival, hosted by My DIY Home Tips.

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11 Comments so far

  1. phil says:

    I saw a little of one of the sub stories but that enough to tell me that this series and prophet Cox is more about softening up the audiences for a surreptitious foisting of a Big Bananas self serving cobbled together religiosity of some quite discernable kind to opium-ise the people into a devouring consumerist,anti-political and cognitivly disorientated serfdom.
    In the book Chapter 1 is called ‘The Messangers’- who sent them? And the last Chapter is titled ‘Destiny’ – prefigured purpose- pretty rum for a book purporting to be about some speculative physics.
    ‘Wonders is a mirror of a mirror, and if the first is wonky then one can imagine the wonderful exponential wonkyness of the second.

    • Farrell says:

      if you want to get your point across to people reading this article i suggest you stop using a thasourause incorrectly and start using a language that life forms made from dying stars might understand. ps, dont make a reply about my spelling. it will only make you look more of a loser

  2. billynobrain says:

    he’s a lovely lad but if you’re going to go off on one about the big bang you have to be prepared to talk about what was there before the BB and what was outside the kernel of the BB, otherwise it’s just a leap of faith and you might as well talk about the Baby Jesus. And his recent chat about the beginning of the eye and how “other life forms then had to develop eyes” is another wonderful “leap of imagination”

    v pretty pictures but

    did you notice that his name backwarsd is scarily like cock brain

    sweet

    • Farrell says:

      now thats the sort of debate i was looking for! what was before the big bang? whats outside the universe?. just because these points are not answered in the program it dos not mean that his explanation of everything that happened after the big bang is not true. and when i say his explanation i mean his knowledge of the yet to be proven wronge laws of physics.

  3. phil says:

    Perhaps some expressions have the merest tincture of the illumination of a living star rather than the encroaching darkness and flaillings of a dying star.

    I have yet to use a thasourouse because although it deals in shades of meanings including itself, it can have none of the restorative exactitude of a spell checker.

    • Farrell says:

      its not worth talking to you. you should be a politician they all speak like you.

      • phil says:

        Whether or not in fact, this is just one of an infinite (sic) number of bouncing- and hopefully bounding universes is less important than the need for it to plausibly presented as such to suit the demands of the the day. After all, it is not scholars that fund scientific research. Big bang (did it ever make a noise?)is at the end of its shelf life. New reputations need to be made and an ‘endless cycle’ of universes- minus the singularities,coz it was never more than an abstract point of departure) suits them dandy and crowds any need of a creator out of the cosmic picture. Which is why of course, that modern cathedral to speculative science(formerly natural philosophy before it became a mathematical behemoth) the large atom cruncher in yodel land was so extravagantly financed to find the ‘boson’ floated out as the material to subdued an immaterial God. Never mind that its hasn’t a life beyond the hand that penned it; it exists, and sotto voce, doesn’t exist, all at the same time. And perfectly timed too, now that a new Dark Age of magikal awes, dreads, and wonders has been made to arrive to fill the void.
        As the back of his book bows ‘Praise be Brian Cox'(sic)(pbuh?).

  4. richard ball says:

    1. If the furthermost galaxies are 13 billion light years away from earth and the big bang took place 13 billion years ago the universe is expanding at the speed of light is it not?
    This surely is not permissible because galaxies receding at the speed of light would be pure energy and not visible as physical objects.
    In that case did not the big bang take place longer ago and the universe is expanding at a lesser speed as suggested by the red-shift.

    2. It seems that the decayed background radiation, which indicates that it all started with the big bang, permeates the local cosmos.
    How is it known that there is not similarly decayed radiation in the outer reaches of the cosmos where the most distant galaxies have been observed?

    • Farrell says:

      i was thinking the same thing when i watched. but did the universe expand faster than light and the expantion of the universe is now slowing down giving light a chance to catch up. this leads to what i beleave. that the universe will eventually reverse and compress back to the big bang and start again in an endless cycle.

  5. Steven says:

    While I have learned a great deal from and appreciate this show, I also have a couple problems with some broad sweeping assumptions that must be made in order to accept the whole story.

    these are the areas that I have difficulty with

    1. In the beginning there was nothing then bang everything came into existence. The first law of thermodynamics states that energy is neither created nor destroyed rather converted from one state to another. This law is easily observed in nature. So I ask myself, if energy always exist in one form or another but is not created and destroyed then how does something like energy come from nothing. How does nothing produce anything for that matter. What is nothing? It’s the absence of things it is literally NO-Thing so how do you get SOME-Thing from NO-Thing? it makes NO-Sense.
    This whole assumption sounds identical to the leap of faith required to believe in the Bible, Genesis 1, 1. “In the beginning God created the heaven and earth.”.
    Both of these stories require a leap of faith that something came from nothing and to me that simply makes no sense. While I’m on the subject of faith, those who believe in the Bible as the account for how life came to be on planet earth emphasize that it is by an act of faith that you believe this account of things. Whereas, with science, they are trying to imply they have some kind of special knowledge about the Big Bang event. Both require a leap of faith, at least a Christian admits it as such.
    This is a major point of difficulty for me, I cannot accept that SOME-Thing comes from NO-Thing without some seriously compelling logic (which there is not).
    If space is expanding in all directions then no matter where you are, everything would appear to expand away from you in all directions. Here is a simple question that should be able to be answered if in fact there was a Big Bang, “Where in the universe did it take place?”. If everything is expanding out from a central point then it should be easy to identify that point not just in time but also in space. Why don’t I ever here about this point in space?
    2. First law of thermodynamics – Energy is neither created or destroyed, simply converted from one form to another.
    Second law of thermodynamics – Entropy, things tend to move from order to disorder.
    The second law of thermodynamics is used in the “Destiny” episode to explain that all things will eventually wind down to a cold enough state that atoms are not moving. This opens the door to many questions in my mind.
    Has anyone measured the speed of an atom or its half life, (I’m not talking about radioactive decay). If an atom of hydrogen is left alone in a space of nothing will it simply stop moving and evaporate into nothing? Again, how does something become nothing. Is heat or motion the measure of a things existence? Evaporation is the process of heat moving towards cold and this is the foundation of their premise that the universe will at some point stop existing. How then do stars form? There is a cloud of dust and gas that appears to coalesce then puff it ignites. So something that was cold created something that was hot via gravity? Is this entropy? or is this things moving from disorder into order?
    for me there are many more questions than answers and I must say this was a spectacular series of educational shows but I would simply caution people to think for themselves and not simply accept everything presented as complete fact.

  6. phil says:

    Rather than the befuddling of ‘something from nothing’ better the rationalistic clarity of ‘is there any evidence that materiality has ever not existed’? -so as to have no need for an originating cause. Matter as an abstract idea before the wilful palpability of it. Like Dawkins needs to have the idea of a book before he starts to write it. To believe that Dawkins could write the ‘God Delusion’ before ever having conceived of it must be a delusion he has facilited the conceptually blinded to stagger themselves into. But where does this leave the perishability of entropy? An infinity of bouncing universes no doubt to get speculative physics out of the specuilative jam. That will do for the moment before that too, will have to dug out of another for not so much metaphysical but the more earthy sociopolitcal ones of those who fund the reseach and pay the salaries.
    Where the ‘God(as)particle’now in the new era of magico mumbo jumbo?


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Charles Heaton British thriller writer O.C. Heaton, author of The Human Race, is fascinated by the past, present and future of human evolution. (Image credit: Ross Parry Agency) Read More>>

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