Monday, February 8, 2010
While listening to the superbowl on TV last night I was perusing the Sunday New York Times. Enough news that cannot be consumed in one sitting. I came across the obituary of Geoffrey Burbidge. It was the headline that caught my attention. This by Dennis Overbye, he writes "Geoffrey Burbidge, 84, Dies; Traced Life to Stardust."
Dr Burbidge was a fascinating person I would like to have known. My condolences to his family and friends for their loss. And the concept "we are stardust" is equally fascinating and quoted from this New York Times' article:
In 1957, in a long, groundbreaking paper in The Reviews of Modern Physics, Dr. Burbidge; his wife, E. Margaret Burbidge; William Fowler of the California Institute of Technology; and Fred Hoyle of Cambridge University — a collaboration noted by their initials B2FH — laid out the way that thermonuclear reactions in stars could slowly seed a universe that was originally pure hydrogen, helium and lithium, the simplest elements in the periodic table, with heavier elements like oxygen, iron, carbon and others from which life is derived.
Stars like the Sun burn hydrogen into helium to generate heat and light for most of their lives, until they run out of fuel and fizzle, or so the story goes. But more massive stars can go on to ignite helium to produce carbon and oxygen and so forth. Eventually the star explodes, tossing the newly minted atoms into space, where they mix with gas and dust and are incorporated into future stars. Successive generations of stars that coalesce from cosmic dust, burn and then explode would thus make the universe ever richer in heavy elements.
Allan Sandage of Carnegie Observatories, an old friend of Dr. Burbidge’s, once explained it this way: “Every one of our chemical elements was once inside a star. The same star. You and I are brothers. We came from the same supernova.”
Or as the singer Joni Mitchell put it, “We are stardust.”