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Stellar alchemy – more than one way to get heavy?

[“What’s changed in the last 50 years” series]

The lightness of our being actually depends on heaviness. That is, the physics of heavier elements. Our biology, life itself.

So, looking back decades to high school (or even college) chemistry class … The Periodic Table is so much more interesting now. A deeper understanding via quantum physics. A deeper understanding of how heavier elements, some common in our everyday experience, arose from an early universe of plasma and light elements (hydrogen, helium and lithium). The origin of gold and uranium, for example [1]. The ancient alchemists dream of transmuting lead into gold is an arc of stellar stories.

• > “We found a new type of stellar explosion that could explain a 13-billion-year-old mystery of the Milky Way’s elements” by David Yong, Gary Da Costa (July27, 2021)

(quote) Until recently it was thought neutron-star mergers were the only way heavy elements (heavier than zinc) could be produced. These mergers involve the mashup of the remnants of two massive stars in a binary system.

But we know heavy elements were first produced not long after the Big Bang, when the universe was really young. Back then, not enough time had passed for neutron star mergers to have even occurred. Thus, another source was needed to explain the presence of early heavy elements in the Milky Way.

In our research published in Nature, we show the heavy elements detected in SMSS J2003-1142 were likely produced, not by a neutron star merger, but through the collapse and explosion of a rapidly spinning star with a strong magnetic field and a mass about 25 times that of the sun [a “magnetorotational hypernova“].

So, tales told by studying relics from the early universe. This is an interesting line of research. Whether intended or not in modern physics, I’ve sometimes felt a notion of evolving complexity as an almost linear, inevitable thread – from the Big Bang to a familiar landscape of the periodic table, molecules, chemicals, proteins, organisms, …

More than a tango.


[1] This page on the Lawrence Livermore National Lab site has definitions for heavy element and superheavy element.

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One thought on “Stellar alchemy – more than one way to get heavy?

  1. Here’s a useful visual for “humanity’s best guess as to the nuclear origin of all known elements” – from hydrogen to other elements via nucleosynthesis. Note that some elements have more than a single color coding.

    This APOD shows information from the Wiki article for nucleosynthesis.

    • NASA > APOD > “Where Your Elements Came From” (January 8, 2023)

    Image Credit & License: Wikipedia: Cmglee; Data: Jennifer Johnson (OSU)

    Explanation: The hydrogen in your body, present in every molecule of water, came from the Big Bang. There are no other appreciable sources of hydrogen in the universe.

    The carbon in your body was made by nuclear fusion in the interior of stars, as was the oxygen.

    Much of the iron in your body was made during supernovas of stars that occurred long ago and far away.

    The gold in your jewelry was likely made from neutron stars during collisions that may have been visible as short-duration gamma-ray bursts or gravitational wave events.

    Elements like phosphorus and copper are present in our bodies in only small amounts but are essential to the functioning of all known life.

    The featured periodic table is color coded to indicate humanity’s best guess as to the nuclear origin of all known elements.

    The sites of nuclear creation of some elements, such as copper, are not really well known and are continuing topics of observational and computational research.

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