Science

We are Star Stuff

About 13.8 billion years ago, everything we know took shape right after one of the greatest events in universal history: a singularity we affectionately named the Big Bang.

And what a bang it was!

Although I am afraid that we were unable to appreciate such a tremendous occurrence, because, in the universal youth, we did not exist.

At all.

Truth be told, we weren’t even written within the chaotic “plans” of the flourishing Cosmos. As small as we are, it is to be expected that our relevance at the universal scale is equally tiny.

But the immaterial state in which we were would change. And all thanks to them:

Photograph of a stellar region.

But some time had to pass before they made an appearance. And during said time the Universe got itself a little busy playing with the fabric of space-time and the four fundamental forces. And so it was for millions years. Millions of which were filled with all kinds of crazy situations.

Fortunately, the Cosmos would eventually come to its “senses” and, leaving its childishness aside, it was able to give life to the primary components of existence: atoms.

These initial atoms were configured in interesting patterns, creating the first known elements. And it would be these elements the ones giving rise to our starry friends.

Photograph of a massive stellar formation region.

And that’s how the first known stars in the Universe were forged. Based on a set of hydrogen, helium and lithium, their combination was destined for cosmic success from the very beginning.

After all, these elements didn’t waste any time turning all the stellar matter into chemical machines, capable of mixing new atomic combinations in a vast and rich elemental concoction.

The method they used, for this purpose, was thermonuclear fusion, since this allowed them to reach the levels of pressure necessary for the triumphant manufacture of all kinds of elements never before seen within the Universe.

Photograph of a stellar formation region.

However, despite the beauty behind such an arduous process, a problem lurked on the horizon. One whose presence became more pressing with each new creation made within our friends.

For the elements they forged were kept contained in the stellar nuclei, unable to escape but in need of release. And that obliges us to ask: how could the Cosmos get soaked in elemental richness if all of it remained confined to a stellar body?

Murder was not an option at the time. The Universe did not want to get its hands dirty with such a ruthless act.

Infrared photograph of the “hand of God”, aka the pulsar PSR B1509-58.

Therefore, an idea dawned upon the minds of our starry colleagues, making them decide that the best thing they could do was committing suicide.

An act they tried not to overthink, because, they felt, by way of a hunch, that this was for the benefit of the greater good.

So after dealing with the sufficient amount of energy processes at their centres, almost every star in the early Universe exploded, killing itself instantly in the process.

Photograph of a nebula, surrounded by stars.

And given the scope and magnificence of their explosions, these stars would not be easily forgotten in the universal emptiness. The particles that once made them travelled for millions of years throughout the Cosmos, scattering an enigmatic breath of starry life at every corner.

As stardust they moved. And from time to time, they’d meet in packages overflowing with the elements that permitted the formation of completely new things in the Universe.

Out of these primordial hubbubs, huge galaxies came to rise, with sizes that allowed them to have millions and millions of stars within themselves. And these galactic stars would exert the necessary gravitational force, within their respective regions, to cause the formation of planets.

Photograph of a barred spiral galaxy.

Thus, after 7 or 8 billion years of cosmic enrichment, in an irrelevant arm of an insignificant spiral galaxy an average star would surround itself by 8 different planets. And, by gravity, these would remain fixed in orbit against the vastness of the Cosmos.

And one of those 8 planets would be the pale blue dot we call home. An appropriate name, for it is here where we sprouted. Growing and developing from microscopic entities to apes with big brains and funny ideas.

And it was thanks to these evolutionary gifts that we came to study the Universe, learning little by little about it and figuring piece by piece all of its machinations and works.

Artistic impression of the motion of the planets in our solar system.

But none of these magnificent happenings would have been possible without the sacrifice of those initial stars, who bravely gave up their lives to imbue us with the dust that forms ours.

So tonight, if you are outside, look up at the night sky and search for at least one star. And may that star be a reminder of the fact that we are one of the many ways in which the Universe expresses its magnitude and speaks about the infinity of its transcendence.

After all, regardless of our differences, each and every one of us, cosmic stuff, is made exactly of the same thing.

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