By Horus Alas
That’s what contemporary astrophysicists claim, anyway. Stephen Hawking described the beginning of the universe in the following terms: “At this time, the Big Bang, all the matter in the universe, would have been on top of itself. The density would have been infinite. It would have been what is called, a singularity.”
Imagine everything that exists today coalesced into a single point in space-time. All matter comprising ourselves, everything around us, and things we’ll never see nor imagine existed in a space maybe the size of a pin prick.
That much matter could never have remained within such an infinitesimal space because of its tremendous density. Atoms also tend to generate heat due to the motion of their particles. This single tiny space in the universe where everything existed all at once was therefore immeasurably hot as well as dense.
What happens when a hot, dense object is put under pressure because of limited space?
We can imagine, then, an infinite amount of matter and energy exploding fantastically in all directions at once, shaping the very fabric of space-time as it expanded.
In the beginning, there was Hydrogen and Helium—two gases expanding violently and flagrantly into the vast space that we now refer to as the universe.
On some level, that’s fine as an origin story. But it doesn’t quite explain where the hell everything else came from.
The ancient Greeks had bifurcations of chaos and a host of gods to explain the phenomena of their natural world. Lightning struck when Zeus hurled bolts down from Olympus, and fall and winter proved ineffectual for farming because Demeter was spending six months each year in the underworld.
Astrophysics has us covered here though. As it turns out, stars like our sun generate heat and light through an incessant process of nuclear reactions taking place inside their cores.
Hydrogen and Helium operate at the nexus of these reactions, undergoing incessant nuclear fusion that makes the crust of stars incandescent. Stars combine two like atoms to create a single atom of immediately greater mass (e.g. Hydrogen into Helium, Helium into Carbon, etc.) and then shed the excess matter as heat and light energy. This is true not only for the Sun in our solar system, but for all stars in every solar system in the observable universe.
Given their energy output, stars might be thought of as self-contained power plants. They use their own mass as a source of fuel, and in doing so, diffuse light and heat to planets orbiting around them.
Of course, given that the mass of stars is limited, so is their energy source. Once they’ve fused all their Hydrogen atoms—these have only one proton and electron each, and are the lightest element on the periodic table—into Helium, they then begin converting their Helium atoms into Carbon, Carbon into Magnesium, or Oxygen, and so on.
When stars are only left with very dense atoms like iron to fuse as their fuel source, they become unstable.
To recap: what happens when a hot, dense object is put under pressure due to limited space?
Depending on their size, stars undergo one of two processes at the end of their life cycle.
Stars about the size of our Sun will turn into Red Giants when they run out of Helium to fuse, and their outer layers will drift away from their center of mass to form a Planetary Nebula. As more of the star’s original mass drifts out, these turn into White Dwarfs.
Stars much larger than our Sun undergo a much grander and vehement exit from the backdrop of our universe.
Once all their Hydrogen is fused into Helium, these stars will become Red Supergiants with Helium cores and expanding outer layers. As density inside the core of these supermassive stars increases, they begin fusing iron. When density becomes too great, their core collapses, and they explode in an awesome process called a Supernova that blows away their outer layers.
Density within the core of a supermassive star at the end of its life cycle is so great that even as it begins to violently expand due to pressure, it can still fuse the heaviest elements in its core into heavier ones.
Ultimately, contemporary astrophysics claims, all elements in the universe heavier than Hydrogen and Helium that currently exist came about due to the explosions of supermassive stars.
The oxygen in our water, the carbon in our hair and fingernails—even the iron in everything from our blood to our buildings—came about due to the sublime, overwhelming spectacle of heat, light, energy and matter taking place at the time a supernova exploded. Our life in this universe is only possible because supermassive stars have died and made it so.
In closing: you and I, and everything around us, and everything we can ever imagine, and even things we’ll never see nor ever imagine—if they exist—are made of stardust. Just let that sink in.
Featured Photo Credit: Courtesy of WikiCommons.
Horus Alas is a freelance writers and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.