THE COSMIC CONNECTION

 

 

 

 

 

I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journeywork of the stars

Walt Whitman

 

 

 

 

 

Every breath you take contains atoms forged in the blistering furnaces deep inside stars. Every flower you pick contains atoms blasted into space by stellar explosions that blazed brighter than a billion suns. Every book you read contains atoms blown across unimaginable gulfs of space and time by the wind between the stars.

          Astronomers often talk glibly of black holes and exploding stars, pulsars, quasars and the titanic eruption of the Big Bang. But if the truth be told it is extremely difficult to believe that any of these things are actually real--as real, for instance, as a mountain or an oak tree or a newborn baby. They are simply too remote, too far removed from the familiar world of our experience. It seems inconceivable that they could have the slightest connection with our everyday lives.

          But this is an illusion.

          Many of the most dramatic and awe-inspiring of cosmic events--from the violent death throes of stars to the titanic fireball that gave birth to the entire Universe 15 billion years ago--are connected to us directly by way of the atoms that make up our bodies.

          If the atoms that make up the world around us could tell their stories, each and every one of them would sing a tale to dwarf the greatest epics of literature. From carbon, baked in bloated red giants--stars so enormous they could swallow a million Suns--to uranium, cooked in supernova explosions--just about the most violent cataclysms in all of Creation. From boron, generated in atom-crunching collisions in the deep-freeze of interstellar space to helium, forged in the hellish first few minutes of the Big Bang itself.

          The iron in your blood, the calcium in your bones, the oxygen that fills your lungs each time you take a breath--all were baked in the fiery ovens deep within stars and blown into space when those stars grew old and perished. Every one of us is a memorial to long-dead stars. Every one of us was quite literally made in heaven.

          For thousands of years, astrologers have been telling us that our lives are controlled by the stars. Well, they were right in spirit if not in detail. For science in the 20th century has revealed that we are far more intimately connected to events in the cosmos than anyone ever dared imagine. Each and every one of us is stardust made flesh.

          The story of how we discovered the astonishing truth of our cosmic origins--how we found the magic furnace that forged the atoms in our bodies--is one of the great untold stories of science. In fact, it is two stories intertwined: the story of atoms and the story of stars. Neither story can be told without the other. For the stars contain the key to unlocking the secret of atoms and the atoms the solution to the puzzle of stars.

          In the 20th century, the story of the quest for the origin of atoms is the story of two great theories and the pendulum that has swung back and forth between them. One theory maintained that atoms were cooked inside stars then ejected into space to provide the raw material for new suns and new planets while the other theory contended that atoms were assembled at the very birth of the Universe in the first blisteringly hot minutes of the Big Bang.

          At first the pendulum swung to stars as the most likely site of the elusive magic furnace. Then, when it appeared that stars were simply not hot enough for the job of cooking atoms, the pendulum swung to the Big Bang. When the Big Bang turned out not to be up to the job either, the pendulum swung back to stars again. Or at least most of the way to stars. For nature, as we are so often reminded, is under no obligation to make things simple just for our convenience.

          But before we were in any position to discover the cosmic origin of atoms, we first needed to realise that atoms were actually made and not put in the Universe on Day One by the Creator. And before we could realise this truth we needed to realise something even more basic and far-from-obvious: that everything is made of atoms...

           You might be forgiven for thinking that the stars are a long way away. After all, no telescope, not even the biggest and most powerful in the world, can make them appear larger than mere pinpricks of light. No eye, not even the most sensitive, can detect the slightest movement as they creep across the night sky. No space probe, not even the swiftest ever built, could reach the nearest and return with a sample in less than a thousand lifetimes.