By Scott Sullivan
Scarcely a day goes by I’m not asked where the elements come from. The stars, I say.
“All 118 of them?”
They mean elements. Astronomers estimate there are many more stars; 100 million per galaxy times 2 trillion galaxies. I’m sure they made up some formula to guess this. Our last count of elements forged in the fiery lives and strange deaths of stars is fewer.
“Every element on Earth, except for the few made recently by humans, was inherited from the nebula that gave birth to our solar system 4.5 billion years ago,” says the Los Angeles Times.
“That includes the iron in our skyscrapers, the silicon in our computers, the gold in our jewelry and the calcium in our bones,” the paper says.
We’re the stuff stars are made of, if that’s not fake news. If it is, are we made of lies?
Within 15 minutes of the Big Bang, hydrogen (No. 1 in the periodic table) atoms coalesced out of the cloud of newborn particles. Some quickly combined, astrophysicists say, to make helium (No. 2). Nos. 1 and 2 make up 98 percent of the universe. Tell your kids that when they’re potty training.
The first stars formed 100 billion years after the Big Bang, says astronomer Jennifer Johnson of Ohio State University. Like I’d trust a Buckeye. They generated energy for millions of years by “burning” hydrogen — combining atoms into helium through nuclear fusion, as the sun does today, she says.
When these stars ran out of hydrogen fuel, they started making increasingly-heavy elements, burning helium into carbon (No. 6) and oxygen (No. 8).
In the last centuries of a star’s life, it converts carbon into elements such as sodium (No. 11) and magnesium (No. 12). In the final weeks, oxygen atoms fuse into silicon (No. 14), phosphorus (No. 15) and sulfur (No. 16). In the last days it produces metals such as iron (No. 26).
Fusion can’t combine elements heavier than iron, so the star runs out of juice. Like humans. When I told my wife to iron my shirt she threw it at my head. When I died at least I was wrinkle-free.
In less than a second the star collapses on itself and explodes as a supernova — spewing its newly-minted elements into the universe, the LA Times says. Supernovae also unleash cosmic rays that break apart larger atoms to create lithium and beryllium (Nos. 3 and 4).
There’s more, but I don’t want to boron you (No. 5). Plus it’s fake news that I know anything about chemistry. I was bad in all subjects, but chemistry was worst. I got through it because my teacher, Jim Guy, was a fellow White Sox fan.
I sat next to him at commencement. “How many of these have you sat through?” I asked.
“I earned an ‘F.’”
“Flourine doesn’t deserve you. Nor me in my class for another year.”
“How about those Sox?”
They sucked that year — second-last in the A.L. West. On to college, where I learned I was deficient in many more subjects. Now I’m making up for it reading studies designed, or diluted way down, for dummies.
Want to make your own elements? Men have synthesized 16 in labs that do not occur naturally on Earth (elements, not labs, though most of the latter are manmade too). Ten more yet-to-be-proven ones are needed to fill out the Periodic Table.
Pick up a particle accelerator at the Jiffy Mart, set to work and with luck you can name one of these elements — such as Lawrencium or Darmstadtium — for yourself. They may be useless and exist only for an eyeblink, but that’s not unlike people either.
How can I know this, being dead? I’ll explain that too. Decomposition has a chemical component I am clueless about, but I do know it is needed to recycle finite matter that occupies physical space in the biosphere.
People compose all kinds of things: music, drawings, schemes to rule the world … before start decomposing. When I decompose essays like in this column, I restore the balance. My physical expiration inspired so much reader praise I decided to come back for testimonials.
Plus it was hot the place I was staying. Not like Alabama, but close. I could have used Sheriff Bull Connor to cool me down with a fire hose as he did Birmingham civil rights activists in 1963, but our publisher assures us Alabama today “is far more progressive than many rural Michigan communities.”
I’m sure that is so in some cases. But I’m not sure it’s fair to stereotype rural Michiganians any more than it is Alabamians or people of different races.
At least one thing has changed: the Sox are now in the A.L. Central. They finished second-last this year too.