I've been thinking a lot about atoms lately, trying to wrap my feelings around some things that my head has known for years. It's easy to say that we're made of inconceivably tiny particles, but to really grasp that concept and truly feel it from one's innards is difficult. I can only do it for fleeting moments before the emotional awareness overwhelms me and melts away like a mirage, leaving me talking about something that I don't really "believe" any more than I believe in demons or faeries. I suppose our brains aren't built to handle such strange, abstract concepts easily, being more suited to dealing with things we can more readily sense and deal with in the here and now of our daily lives.
But just the other day my atomic musings triggered a new realization, one that pushed my imagination outward from the realm of the invisibly small to the incredibly huge.
It was one of those gloriously cloudless, crisp winter days in the Adirondacks, and I was skiing across the open powdery snow-plains of a local marsh. The mid-day sun was dazzling, and as its light rebounded from the bright white flatness between the sparsely scattered silhouettes of larch and spruce saplings, only the clean chill of the air reminded me that this wasn't some sandy summer beach or desert but a frozen wetland.
I felt the rays warming my face, and imagined them hurtling across 93 million miles of space to reach me from the surface of the sun. The tingling reminded me that heat makes atoms vibrate faster than usual, and that led me back to my musings about those tiny little things. This time, however, my mind also made a connection between the atoms in my skin and the sun itself.
In my Evolution course, I tell my students that Joni Mitchell's phrase "we are stardust" (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3aOGnVKWbwc) is literally true, that the atoms in our bodies arose from fusion reactions in the guts of stars. I'm not an astrophysicist, though, and until now I hadn't dug very deeply into the details of stellar evolution. But something about that claim stopped me in my (ski) tracks.
I had been giving my students the impression that our atoms originally came from the sun. I suddenly realized that this is wrong. The sun is too small to produce anything but the smallest elements in its fiery belly. So where did the carbon and iron atoms in my flesh and blood come from? Or the oxygen in those sparkling snow crystals, or the silicon in the bedrock hidden beneath them? Relatively heavy elements such as these form in much larger stars, but there's no such giant anywhere near enough to have spawned our stardust.
As luck would have it, I got my answer that evening when scientist-educator Michio Kaku described stellar evolution on a TV documentary. (See, even science profs watch TV, and it's not all bad!). I later found more of the same information online and in notes I've taken from speakers over the years but never thought much about until now.
My confusion was well-founded; the sun really is much too small to be the ultimate source of all Earthly atoms. Kaku put it succinctly thus - "the sun is our step-mother," not our "real" mother. He also confirmed that most of our atoms had to have formed in a star that was thousands of times larger than the sun, and only when such a mega-star grew old and died in a spectacular "super-nova" explosion.
So where is our real Big Mama Star? Well - she's dead. And that's a good thing as far as we're concerned, because many of the atoms in our bodies wouldn't exist yet if she were still alive.
Big Mama Star lived and died before the sun was born, billions of years ago. Imagine that, a gigantic star was here before the sun.
When she finaly exploded, she gave birth to a vast and diverse spray of atoms that drifted about as a cloudy-looking nebula until gravity gradually pulled many of them back together into clumps. One of those globs drew in so much matter that it became dense enough to burst into a flaming ball of nuclear fusion reactions, and it's still burning today with enough blinding energy output to reach across millions of miles and drive photosynthesis and, indirectly, almost all life on this Earth - which itself is another gift delivered to us through the ages from Big Mama, a floating anchor to live on and to borrow the stuff of our bodies from.
To put this into more immediate human terms, the sun is Big Mama's son, as well as a life-supporting foster care-giver to us.
Should we therefore spell it "Here comes the SON?"