Sunday, June 29, 2014

We Are Stardust

You probably remember the lyrics from this old song:

We are stardust
We are golden
We are billion year old carbon
And we've got to get ourselves
Back to the garden

Can you hear it playing in your head? (Gotcha...earworm!)

But just in case you're too young (or too old) to remember, here's a YouTube so you can catch the audio.

Those few lines are from the Joni Mitchell song, Woodstock, performed by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. Poetic lyricry, for sure. But there's hard scientific truth in those words.

I picked up a copy of John Gribbin's Companion to the Cosmos at a local consignment shop and I've been reading and absorbing the ideas and theories ever since. I soon stumbled on the scientific underpinings of those romantic Mitchell words. This book provided detailed theories of the very beginnings of our universe, and how those words from the song ring true.

Or at least theoretically true.

Through math and physics, the particulars of those first few split seconds of the Big Bang have been worked out. How can scientists possibly know what happened all those billions of years ago, you wonder? Actually, according to Gribbin, the information from which the Big Bang and its mechanics are derived is "simple."

It's what came after--as the universe began to form and expand and change--that things get really complicated!

So what--via theory--is known about the phrase "We Are Stardust?"

Here's my extremely over-simplified (and that I can somewhat wrap my head around) version:

Just after the Big Bang explosion--and that does mean "just after"--at about .0001 or a tenth of a thousandth of a second, the universe was a hot fireball of radiation that was about 1,000 billion degrees above absolute zero.

Under these extreme conditions particles (protons, neurons and electrons) began to convert themselves from radiation into pairs of particles, swapping energy for mass. The particles of matter and anti-matter material that formed usually met and annihilated each other, but as the universe "cooled" (relatively speaking) there were just enough left-over particles--to the tune of about 1 in 1,000,000,000--to form everything we see in the universe today.

By one 1/100th of a second after creation, things were "calming down a little." The temperature had dropped to a mere 100 billion K and protons and neutrons were no longer being manufactured out of radiation.

And 1/10th of a second, the temperature was only 30 billion K.

At 1.01 seconds after the Big Bang, it was down to 10 billion K. (Can you say 'rapid cooling?')

Now, as the universe got "older" (relatively speaking again!) things really began to "slow down."

At 13.8 seconds after the Big Bang, the temperature was a mere 3 million K.

At 3 minutes and 2 seconds, it was only 1 billion K, which is only about 70 times hotter than the center of our Sun.

It took another 300,000 years to cool to 5,000 K, a temperature just slightly below the surface of our Sun. But remember, we're talking the entire universe being this temperature, which equated to everything in existence being a "hot soup."

A few hundred thousand years later, our universe became transparent, and only the echo of the Big Bang remained as background radiation to provide evidence to our species--some 15 billion years later--that it had happened at all.

Slowly, over unfathomable eons of time (*boggles!*) gravity pulled sheets of gases together to form into the first generation stars, and these stars formed galaxies, the galaxies formed superclusters and the superclusters formed chains. This became the basic structure of matter in the universe.

But those first generation stars aren't like the stars we know today.

The Big Bang theory was developed from Einstein's Theory of Relativity which puts forward that only helium, hydrogen and traces of a few light elements were produced at the time the universe came into existence. So those first stars were made up only of hydrogen and helium. It wasn't until later--billions and billions of years later--that these stars began to run out their life cycles and explode--and this is when carbon and other heavy elements were formed.

And so...we carbon-based life forms are indeed star dust. We carry in our bodies the stuff of dead stars, the remains of supernovas. In fact, about 40% of our bodies are made up of the fiery remnants of stars.

Our Sun is a relative newcomer, forming only about 5 billion years ago. The Earth is about 4.54 billion years old, give or take about 50 million years. (Although, surprise!--there was a new discovery put forward in June that implies the Earth--and the Moon--may be older than believed.)

Nice.  But what does all this have to do with writing Science Fiction Romance, you ask? Well...everything.

I like to think of it this way. If I were to write historicals, I'd research the place and time and conditions in which my story is set to get the facts right. Right?

But since I pen adventurous romances about planetary explorers and space fleet captains and interstellar escapees "boldly going" through space or discovering new worlds, now I've got an insiders' look at the pyrotechnics that created this wondrous universe...

...and that my hero and heroine are not only brave, resourceful and intelligent, but also chock full of ancient cosmic fireworks.

(Cue music. *wink*)

Have a great week and a fabulous Fourth of July!

~~~~ * ~~~~


  1. I think Carl Sagan also said 'we are star stuff'. And Doctor Who. I quoted both for my Starry Nights post. :) So maybe we should say we're returning to the stars merely than exploring them. :P

  2. So true, Pippa. Love the phrasing in that. Returning to the stars...


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