January 18, 2016
353 Elemental Origins [18 Jan 2016]
Last week I wrote about the ratio of elements in our bodies. This week I’m going to back up a little (like 14 billion years!) to explore the origins of these elements.
Cosmologists and particle physicists have developed theories to explain the formation of the universe, including all the elements that occur on Earth – and in us. The current theory is still known as the Big Bang, the name sarcastically given to it in 1949 by a then skeptical cosmologist, Fred Hoyle. According to this theory, the universe, with all of its mass and energy, expanded out of a single point called a singularity about 13.8 billion years ago.
As the universe expanded and cooled, the immense energy condensed into protons, neutrons and electrons (plus many other particles I won’t mention here) which then combined to form the simplest atoms – hydrogen (1), helium (2) and lithium (3). [The numbers in ( )’s following the element names are the number of protons in the nucleus, called the “atomic number”.] This formation of elements early in the universe is called Big Bang nucleosynthesis and resulted in a ratio of about 75% hydrogen, 25% helium, and just a trace of lithium.
Over millions of years these expanding gasses coalesced into galaxies and then into stars. Gravity acting on the stars caused the temperature in the center to rise and fusion to begin, combining the hydrogen into helium. As stars near the end of their life and start to run out of hydrogen they collapse inwards, raising the temperature enough for helium to fuse into carbon (6). Depending on the size of the star, this process continues, at an increasing rate, to form oxygen (8), then neon (10), silicon (14) and so on up to iron (26), cobalt (27) and nickel (28). As the stars die these elements are blown out into space in clouds of dust and gasses. Ironically it was Fred Hoyle who, in 1954, developed this theory of stellar nucleosynthesis.
The heavier elements (above nickel) can only be formed in supernovae explosions, like the one that formed the Crab Nebula in 1054. When massive stars, 10 or more times the mass of the Sun, collapse and spectacularly explode they blow immense clouds of particles containing all these elements out into space. These clouds of dust then cool and condense to form a new generation of stars and planets, like the one we live on.
So in a very real sense, we are made of star dust.
For more information on this or other natural health topics, stop in and talk to Stan; for medical advice consult your licensed health practitioner.