Tag Archives: physics

How to, and how not to, be a skeptic (bad science be damned!)

I am both cynical and skeptical by nature.  I think it is healthy for the brain to demand evidence when someone states something as fact.  I always keep my face incredulous when presented with a “fact” that smells like bullshit.  What is not healthy is to have your own world view you hold to be concrete and immovable that runs counter to the evidence.  The job of science in our civilization is formulate working theories of the natural world.  These theories are then often applied to different aspects of civilization by entrepreneurs, corporations, and governmental agencies.

Absolutism is not science.  Science does not care about your faith or beliefs.  It keeps on keeping on regardless of what you believe to be “true”.  When one believes in an absolute they may say things like, “God made the Earth in six days 6,000 years ago and God is perfect with no flaws.” So when someone shows beyond a shadow of a doubt that the world was born some 4.55 billion years ago, the absolutist has two options:

1) Accept that their belief system is wrong, or

1) Accuse the evidence of being a lie.

Some people just cannot accept evidence even if they witnessed it themselves.  There are millions of Americans who still think missiles and not airplanes hit the World Trade Center and Pentagon on September 11th, 2001 despite the millions of witnesses and the hours of recorded video of the events as they happened.  These people choose to cherry pick evidence to support their claim rather than engage those who offer refutation of their beliefs.  Many of these “911-Truthers” state that World Trade Center Tower 7 was intentionally imploded as it hadn’t suffered much damage and proceed to show an image of the building without much damage as evidence that it was fine and not in danger of collapse.  S4200048.jpg

One side of WTC7 that shows things as not as bad as reported
See WTC7 wasn’t that bad…

Then if I show them an image of WTC7 from another point of view where almost half the building face is destroyed with a raging inferno inside that is impossible for the already decimated NYFD to contain, the absolutist “Truther” ignores my evidence.  They ignore it because they know deep down inside that they have tied part of their identity to the belief that 9/11 was a vast inter-agency conspiracy and if one piece of evidence eviscerates that belief then they are at a crossroads: either they are wrong about their beliefs, or the evidence is a lie!  Thus, they believe the lie out of a fear that their pride will be crushed.

WTC7 was in worse shape than conspiracists report
Then if you look at WTC7 from a different angle things look much worse (especially considering how many firemen had just died next door).

Science does not ignore evidence!

If one thing can poke a hole in your hypothesis then the hypothesis is wrong!  Most Americans have little understanding of how science actually works; so here is a recap for those of you who are little fuzzy on the details:

Step one: Ask a specific question like, “Why is the sky blue?”

Step two: Do your research and see if anyone else has asked and/or answered that question.  Compile existing data and see if you can’t formulate a possible solution to your question.

Step three: Make a hypothesis.  This is where you state a possible answer to your question like, “The sky is blue because the Oceans are blue.”

Step four: Create an experiment to settle the matter. “I am going to travel to the most remote region of land on the planet where no point of sky above me has access to light reflected from the Ocean, like Siberia or something, and see if the sky is still blue!”

Step five: Conduct your experiment.  Get your ass to Siberia and look up.  Is the sky still blue? Yup.

Step six: Admit you were wrong (or in the rare instance where your hypothesis was right, cheer loudly and rub it in everyone’s face).

Step seven: Publish your results and share your findings with the rest of the world and invite other scientists to replicate your experiment, or modify it if necessary.

Step eight: Argue constantly, get drunk at conventions and argue, write letters to journals, comment on websites and feel the wrath of nerds all over the globe.

Step nine: Start over from the beginning and ask a new question, state a different hypothesis, or try a different experiment…

One day my (at the time) very religious sister got into a debate about the age of the Earth and possibility of the existence of evolution with two of my best friends at our local pub.  One of my friends was an Evolutionary Biologist, the other a Geologist and (at the time) a candidate for a PhD Paleontology from Yale.  She was about to lose this debate badly.

Every time one of my friends pointed out some fact like the age of the Sun, how radio carbon dating works, fossil evidence, geologic processes, etc… My sister would reply with, “But the Bible says… yadda, yadda.” Finally, my Paleontologist friend frustratingly gave the most beautiful reply I have ever heard, and I will keep this quote close to my heart for the rest of my life, he said, “Ashley, I can sit around and smoke doobies, listen to Pink Floyd albums, and think of stuff all day, but that’s not science!”  Sitting around reading the Bible, listening to Jars of Clay albums, and thinking of stuff is not science!

the_thinker_auguste_rodin

Sitting around and thinking of stuff is the easy part.  Aristotle did it constantly and became famous for it; although most the stuff he thought up was fucking wrong.  The hard part is finding out if you are right or not.  That is science.  Developing experiments to see if we are right or wrong is where life gets hard and this is where most people stop.  They are content to just keep thinking about more shit and never bother to see if what they thought up even passes a single trial.  The dangers of thinking of stuff and not checking to see if you are right:

Astrology is not a science!

Astrology is pure, unadulterated bullshit.  Yet millions of people live everyday of their lives gripped with what their horoscope reading tells them.  Many of these people love to argue with me as to the merits of whether astrology is a science or not and spend many hours trying to convince me that it is.  If in one case a repeatable experiment pokes a whole into a theory, the theory must be reworked.  Case in point: “Gravity is always attractive.” If you conducted an experiment where you threw a ball into the air one million times, and just one of those times, rather than falling back to the Earth, the ball just floated away never to return, the theory of gravity would be wrong.  Forever.  If you are a Gemini and your horoscope says you are going to “have a 5 star day” and you have a five star day then astrology is right, yes?  Well, what if another Gemini halfway around the world just got his head chopped off in Syria that same day?  Then guess what, astrology is bullshit.  If it is wrong once, then the entire theory must be reworked.

Astrology is wrong so much, that instead of reworking the theory, most “readings” tend to be vague and connotative (this means that the wording is so subjective that it can take on different meanings to different people). If astrology was a “science” then why has no one studied the mysterious force that the heavens obviously (to them) play upon human beings to apply their fate?  Wouldn’t one of these “scientists” have bothered developing at least one experiment to try and discern the mysteries of the stars and planets?

As far as science knows there are four forces: Gravity, Electromagnetic, Weak Nuclear, and the Strong Nuclear.  The later two are incredibly strong but only at infinitesimally small distances.  So, if it is not those two, how are Gravity and Electromagnetism acting upon humans in a way that can determine how their day is going to go via a bunch of planets and stars that are at unimaginably great distances?  Taking these four known forces into account, how can astrologer keep track of the quadrillions (or more) variables at play when the most powerful computer systems and the smartest minds in the world can only give a probability as to if it will rain tomorrow or not?  Why are astrologers not predicting the stock market or betting on sporting events?  That’s because it is because astrology is bullshit.  What they are betting on is your ignorance and gullibility.

homeopathy-803_250px

Gravity is the force that acts the strongest over great distances.  If a glass of water one meter from you has more gravitational effect upon your body than the largest planet in our solar system (Jupiter) does at 800 million kilometers, then how is a star hundreds or thousands of light years away going to have any effect upon you?  It doesn’t.  Astrology is not science.

String “Theory” is not a science!

I fight my own uphill battle every day in Astrophysics.  One of these is with regards to String “Theory”.  You’ll note that I put theory in quotation marks.  This is because it is not a theory, it is a hypothesis, and a disproven one at that.  The idea behind String Hypothesis is novel, basically that all particles are made up of the same constituent parts, little sub-atomic strings that vibrate at different frequencies to inform a particle what kind of particle it should be.  They created some fantastic math explaining all of this back in the sixties and made some grand predictions.  Every experiment ever conducted has only disproved the predictions of String Hypothesis such that the ardent supporters of this hypothesis keep changing their math to make it fit with current physical phenomena.

string_theory

Renowned astronomer Alexei Filippenko tells a tale of a major talk he gave shortly after he and his team at UC Berkeley made their discover of Dark Energy.  Filippenko and his team proved that there was a mysterious force that is pulling/tearing the Universe apart.  What we now know is that the Universe is not just expanding, but accelerating in its expansion.  At this talk a prominent String Hypothesist stood up and accused Filippenko of conducting shoddy work because String “Theory” was not compatible with an expanding Universe.

Think about that a moment… Filippenko and his team conducted an observational experiment.  An Experiment that has since been repeated and verified thousands of times.  These scientists literally watched the Universe accelerate through telescopes observations over time; and this String “Theory” knob stands up and tells Filippenko that he has to be wrong because t dipshit’s “math” don’t jive with what the physical realities of the Universe are actually doing.  The String “Theorist” was wrong then, and instead of scrapping the entire hypothesis and starting over, he just conveniently changed the math.  String “Theorists” are not too different than astrologists, they just ignore the evidence against them and move the goal posts.

It gets even worse than that.  To my knowledge I do not know of a single experiment proposed by a String “Theorist” to test their underlying hypothesis.  Sting “Theory” is no different that sitting around, smoking a bunch of doobies, listening to Pink Floyd, and thinking of stuff.  String “Theory” is not science.

Climate skepticism is not Science!

One of my favorite pastimes is arguing with those who militantly doubt man-made climate change.  I honestly do not understand the psychology of the average climate change denier.  What I do understand is that their data is terrible and their logic fatally flawed, but I don’t get why they cannot see (or, better yet, refuse to believe) that humans inherently change our environment and planet through our actions.  My company is called “Noosphere” for a reason.

Climate deniers will make a whole litany of arguments as to why there is no climate change.  Then when I show them that the climate is changing, the glaciers are melting, the oceans rising… they will change their argument to, “Well, yeah, the climate changes, but that is from natural causes.”  So, then I show them that the current warming does not fit any trend of previous interglacial periods in the Earth’s history; that we should be cooling and headed toward glaciation, but instead we are warming while glaciers shrink.  They will then say that we had warming in the past that wasn’t caused by increased CO2 content in our atmosphere, and then I show them that, thanks to air bubbles trapped for millions of years in the ice of glaciers, warming and cooling of our planet coincides exactly with the level of CO2 content in our atmosphere…

icecore_records

When it is exposed that a “scientist” like Harvard’s Willie Soon omitted that he received well over a $1 million in funding from the fossil fuel lobby to specifically deliver academic papers “disproving” anthropogenic climate change the climate deniers then try to turn the tables.  They will then accuse the over 97% of scientists who demonstrate through experimentation that the climate is changing and that this is the cause of human activity of only being I the work for the money.  Sure, these PhDs who earn a whopping $42,000 a year to live in expensive cities like London, Boston, and Seattle are in it for the money.  Climate skeptics are not scientists.

Creationism is not science!

Evolution is real. We see it happen every day, we see examples of it in ourselves, we see it in the fossil record, it is the entire basis of biology and medical science.

As stated earlier, many religions are centered around an infallible God and his texts are also infallible works of his word.  The fear that if one statement made by God, as interpreted by his most ardent followers, is wrong (thus, the God is indeed fallible) then everything they believe would have to be reevaluated and is wrong.  If God is fallible then maybe the God they believe is does not exist.  They cannot face the possibility that there is no God (or at least not the version of God they believe in) and that they would have to admit to wasting their entire lives in the pursuit of a false deity.  This prospect scares the shit out of a lot of people.  Billions of them in fact.

I’ve got news for you: all religion is wrong.  The Universe is at least 13.8 billion years old.  The solar system is at least 4.55 billion years old.  The oldest currently practiced religions date to about 3000 BCE, or about 5,000 years ago.  There is evidence of much older religious practices performed by early humans and Neanderthals up to 300,000 years ago… either way, no one saw the Universe pop into existence so we are all speculating at this juncture.  Also, God only seems to talk to schizophrenics anyway, and you can’t trust those assholes.

Back to creationists.  These people find the idea of an ancient Earth whose history differs from that of the scriptures of Genesis as being an intentional affront to their beliefs.  They believe that God made the heavens and the Earth, the Sun and the Moon, Adam and Eve, all the animals and plants, and the entire Universe in six days.  That we, and everything else on our planet, are no different now than what we were like 6,000 years ago when God made us in his image.  That the giraffe is no different than how God created them when he snapped his fingers and they blinked in to existence that long ago as well.

How theologians of the Bible determined that Earth is only 6,000 years old has to do with the “begats”.  Throughout the Bible there is a fairly consistent genealogy going from Adam all the way to Jesus.  Many of the people mentioned also have their ages mentioned as well.  From this they do a rough calculation and find that the Earth “must be” about this old.

The basis for this way of thinking involves the suspension of critical thinking skills. Many of these people in the Bible have stated lifespans that are not found in reality.  Abraham lived to 175,  Job (despite all his misfortune) live to be 210, Adam himself lived to be 930, Noah 950, and Methuselah all the way to 969 years old.  These people are willing to believe that these men lived hundreds of years, but not that over the course of billions of years simple organisms can face hardships that would favor one trait over another.  Sigh.

Also, all of these people who subscribe to the inflexible tenants of creationism do not even know their religious texts.  God didn’t first create Adam and then Eve from his rib; he created Adam and Lilith at the same time.  Lilith didn’t like Adam having authority over her (and didn’t like the missionary position all that much because she saw women as an equal and didn’t want to be placed beneath men) so she bailed on their marriage (the very first divorce) and hooked up with the archangel Samael.  God was then forced to create Eve from Adam’s rib (kind of like using the spare tire in the trunk of your car).  In other words Lilith was too much of a free spirit and chose her own path and God was forced to make another woman for Adam (who was also eventually corrupt).  Way to go, God, fallible much?

So, if they can’t even get their religion right, who are they to tell biologists, geologists, paleontologists, and astrophysicists the age of the Earth?  These scientists have conducted hundreds of thousands, even possibly millions of experiments that all point to an ancient Earth and an even older Universe.

fdc2BNq

Creationists will say things like, “We have never seen evolution happen.”  Then a scientist explains to them that the cold virus evolves every year and becomes a genetically different virus which is why we all get a cold every year.  Then they will say, “Well, we have never seen something evolve into a different species.”  To which a scientist informs them that yes, we have.  The goatsbeard flower of my own Washington State evolved from their native lineage that originated in Europe and now cannot reproduce with their ancestral flowers just 50 short years later. The Washington goatsbeards can now be considered a new species.  “You see, it didn’t sprout wings and fly away!” eschews the creationist, to which the scientist just slaps their forehead and explains that this is not how any of this works.  Creationism is not science.

Anti-vaxxers do not science!

“Vaccinations cause Autism!” those against vaccinations cry.  Sigh, say the scientists.  “Vaccinations made my kid a vegetable!” accuse the anti-vaxxers.  That has never happened in the history of vaccinations assure the scientists.

antivax

I have a challenge for those against vaccinations: Find me one verifiable case of encephalopathy as a result of a vaccination, just one, and I will show you someone with Dravet syndrome, a genetic disorder.  Anti-vaxxers are idiots, and if someone I know with a compromised immune system (from cancer, autoimmune disorders, because they are an infant, etc…) dies from a primitive disease that should have been eradicated fifty years ago that was passed on by someone who refused a vaccination due to their own ignorance of science, then said anti-vaxxer better hide and hope I never find them.  Anti-vaxxers do not science.

Dark Matter is not science!

The majority of astronomers, physicists, and cosmologists attribute the weird gravitational things they see in the Universe to 90% of all matter being “dark”. Dark mater (a different thing entirely from “Dark Energy”) is assumed to be present as unseen little particles that are spread throughout the Universe.  The only property of these particles is that they have mass, thus exert a gravitational force, but we cannot see dark matter (hence the “dark” part of it) as it does not react via any of the other three forces (electromagnetic, weak nuclear, or strong nuclear).

2-11-milkywaysizemass_014

Scientists are lead to believe that dark matter is even in our own galaxy because stars in the galaxy rotate faster about the galactic center than expected when calculated using Newton’s classical mechanics.  According to Newton, how fast an object orbits about a center of mass is dependent upon the total mass acting upon the center.  The more mass, the faster it has to orbit to keep from falling into the center.

Years ago, this missing mass that makes stars orbit galaxies faster than they should was originally thought to be a result of countless black holes, black dwarf and brown dwarf stars known as MACHOs (Massive Compact Halo Objects).  These hard to see dense balls of matter were thought to float around a galaxy at its furthest reaches lending their unseen mass to the common center of gravity for the galaxy as a whole.  When surveys were conducted to find as many of these objects as possible it was concluded that there were not enough MACHOs to make up for the “missing mass”.

Then came along the hypothesis of the aptly named WIMPs (Weakly Interacting Massive Particles).  These are the particles described above; they are thought to float throughout the galaxies of the Universe in wafting clouds, even in our own solar system (even in the very room you are in right now!).  Because these particles are not seeable, painstakingly and intricately designed detectors have been constructed and placed deep inside the Earth to measure these particles as they flow through our planet on their way about the Universe.

The depths of the massive Homestake Mine in Lead, SD is home to the most robust dark matter detectors (three by my last count).  In the ten or fifteen years that these detectors have been online in various capacities scientists have found exactly zero particles of dark matter.  Zero.  Fucking nada.  Nothing.  Zilch.  Zip.  Bupkis…

sanford-lab-lux
Homestake dark matter detector deep under Lead, South Dakota ain’t found shit, because the shit doesn’t actually exist.

 

Tens of millions of dollars spent.  Instead they could have just slapped that pile of cash into my hand and I could tell them that they wouldn’t find shit instead.  Here’s why:

Dark matter fails the most simple gedanken (thought experiment; a favorite process of Einstein’s).  Gravity is always attractive.  There is no such thing as anti-gravity.  If these particles were 90% of the mass of the Universe, and if these particles are distributed either evenly throughout our own galaxy, or even in vast clouds, then we should be able to easily measure these particles on a local or observational scale.  If these particles are passing through our solar system, and their only property is mass (gravity), then any time they encounter a gravity well (a planet like our own, or the Sun) then these particles should be slowly amassing at the centers of such gravity wells.  Our Sun’s mass should constantly be in flux as these invisible particles find themselves trapped in the solar core.  Our own orbit would need to be in flux as a result as well as the rest of the planets orbiting the Sun.

If WIMPs existed as clouds of invisible matter floating about our galaxy (and that of every galaxy in the known Universe), then why have we not seen any objects in the Universe react locally to such a mass?  Stars are categorized according to the mass and temperature.  The hotter the star, the more massive it is.  If a star is more massive the increased gravitational pressure pulling all of the particles of said star in toward the center of the star’s mass forces more interactions and collisions of individual atoms resulting in more collisions that end in nuclear fusion.  Big stars fuse more hydrogen into helium than small stars (more nuclear explosions make the star hotter).

If these clouds of WIMPs were floating about the galaxy (and remember, these WIMPs consist of 90% of the mass, supposedly), then we should have seen at least once where an existing star (or stars) floated through one of these clouds somewhere, somehow.  If a star floated through one of these presumed clouds of massive particles we would expect to see at least one star somewhere eventually change in mass by going from a mundane star to a hot one as gravitational pressure increased and it sped up the nuclear burning of hydrogen.

It has never happened, just like dark matter detectors have never found one particle of dark matter, we have never seen a star spontaneously change mass.  It is because it dark matter doesn’t exist.

Here is another forehead slapper: adding more mass to the galactic halo does not increase the gravitational effect of any object inside of that halo.  If I dig a deep hole thousands of miles deep inside the Earth and calculate how much gravity is acting upon me I can immediately discount the matter outside the radius of where I am standing inside the Earth.  The same thing happens inside of a galaxy.  The stars are gravitationally attracted to the mass within the radius of their orbit and nothing more.  Stars, clusters, clouds of gas, and supposed dark matter outside that radius will have no effect upon the orbits of the stars closer to the center of mass.  Period.

sphshellin

Now, if we apply Einstein’s General Relativity (something that was designed for massive bodies like galaxies) instead of Newtonian mechanics (something meant for much smaller interactions) we find that dark matter vanishes.  Why don’t more scientists calculate orbits of stars in galaxies using General Relativity?  They don’t do it because it is fucking hard.  They are bad, lazy scientists, that’s why.  It’s easier to put all of one’s faith into the fantastic and physically impossible “dark matter” than it is to do a butt load of tensor equations.  See how good scientists do it.  Dark matter is not science.

The moral of the story.

Question everything; even established science.  Argue, debate, get red in the face, just don’t let pride and fear be the only reasons you believe what you believe.  Make sure your beliefs follow some sort of logical test.  If someone can poke a hole in your logic, reevaluate your beliefs.  In the end, even smart people can be stubborn idiots.  Strive to be better, to do better, and to live better.  Be a good human and practice proper science.  Misplaced pride is not science!

The Rare Gem Series: Meteorites (Part One: The Big Bang to Supernovae)

Timeline of the Universe. (National Geographic)
Timeline of the Universe. (National Geographic)

About 13.8 billion ago the lights turned on.  Or more accurately: THE Light turned on.  That is when scientists have estimated the Big Bang occurred; the singularity that began it all.  As an astronomer as well as a geologist I can go on for days about the fractions of a second in which our story began.  Instead, I will only go on for a few minutes… Or more, depending on your reading skills.  (Please note: if you really don’t want the literal History of the Universe, too bad, because I can’t talk about what meteorites are and where we can find them when I haven’t explained what asteroids are and where they came from, and to explain where asteroids came from I have to explain what they’re made of, and to explain what asteroids are made of I have to explain where matter came from, and to explain where matter came from I have to explain how stars formed and the extent of their lifecycles, and to explain how stars formed and how they die I have to take you back to the beginning of it all.  Thus, when you are finished with these articles, you will essentially have the equivalent of an Astronomy degree without the ability to do the math and physics that makes such a degree useful.  Satisfied?  Didn’t think so.)

For starters, all around us, matter and antimatter are going to war.  It’s an ancient war, the most ancient of wars.  It has been waged since the beginning of time, and possibly, since always.  It is a useless war, one that only ends in photons (nerd joke).  Basically, every second of every day, out of fucking nowhere, a piece of matter appears, and at that same moment, its antimatter counterpart appears as well.  The particles scratch their hooves like angry bulls and make a go at their nemesis.  They violently collide and as instantly and randomly as they appeared, they disappear.  Nothing to show for it but a single gamma photon thrust into the Universe as an orphan with random vector.  Why? Beats the hell out me.  It just does, and that is as good an answer as you will get from anybody.

Matter/Antimatter collision (NASA)
Matter/Antimatter collision (NASA)

So, this instant where the singularity, this infinitely dense, infinitely small point in an infinite Universe that did not even exist yet went *blamo*, the very moment when it all began, nothing but a hot mess could exist.   The amount of energy that was released was so unbelievably unfathomable that nothing bigger than a quark, gluon, or a lepton could exist.  In other words, atoms, the building blocks of matter, did not exist because the infant Universe was hotter than the melting point of atoms themselves.  Run that through your brain for a minute or two.  Hotter than the melting point of atoms themselves…

Atoms melt?

Well, when there is more energy present than either the strong or weak nuclear forces that holds the constituent particles together that form constituent nucleons of an atom the glue is melted and quarks run free!

OK, what’s a quark?

Fuck you. You figure it out.

Back to the message at hand:  This beginning, when the Universe was only 10^-37 seconds old (or 0.0000000000000000000000000000000000001 seconds), the greatest matter/antimatter war that will ever exist raged.  We are the only survivors.  Well, us and the 250 billion other galaxies in the known Universe (and the countless billions in the unknown Universe).  For some reason, yet to be explained by some supernerd (who is more than likely not to have even been born yet), there was more matter than anti matter that farted out of the singularity.  Something on the order of one extra quark or lepton in every thirty million particles.  Think about that.  All the matter that exists in the Universe is impressive, but at the moment of the Big Bang there was not thirty million, but SIXTY million times more matter in the Universe that just obliterated each other out of existence in just a few seconds.  *POOF*

We have no clue as to why there was more matter than antimatter.  There just is.  Maybe on the other side of the Universe there is nothing but entire reaches of space made up of antimatter with antipeople pondering why there is more antimatter than matter.  I don’t know, I am an not an interdimensional space traveler who can answer that for you.

As the nanosecond war of existence raged, the Universe became instantly less dense.  Combine this with the huuuuuge expansion of the nearly instant expansion of the fabric of space with the explosion of the Big Bang and things began to cool down.  At about 10^-6 seconds ( or 0.000001 seconds) temperatures dropped to a mere several billion degrees and the quarks, gluons, leptons, antiquarks, antigluons, and antileptons were allowed to combine into baryons to form things like protons and neutrons, and antiprotons and antineutrons who continued the war for survival even more violently.  By about 1 second (or 1.0 seconds) electrons and positrons sprang from the womb with their fists clenched and swinging.

A few seconds in and the war was over. Matter won and temperatures continued to drop.  A few minutes later with the Universe at a balmy one billion degrees the first hydrogen and deuterium atoms formed out of the protons and neutrons that were basking in the glory of their victory over their anti-selves (it was still too hot for the electrons to join in on the fun).  It took close to 400,000 years for things to cool off enough for electrons to happily orbit the nucleus of an atom, then we started really cooking with fire… er fusion.

Think of this early Universe as a giant, billion light year-wide cloud of particles.  Where the matter was more dense, the pull of gravity brought giant swarming clouds of particles into spinning giant clouds of particles and thus the earliest galaxies began to form.  Even denser regions of clouds inside these galaxies condensed into the first protostars.  At this time the Universe was about 75% hydrogen and 25% helium with no heavier elements.  As the clouds within the clouds began to collapse they got really warm from pressure forcing the particles of helium and hydrogen to bounce off of each other with ever more vigor.  As more particles were attracted to the growing center of mass of this cloud, the pressure became greater and things heated up even more.  Soon so much matter was inside these clouds that they began to glow from the pressure oven they had created giving off a bunch of infrared radiation.  The Universe was on the verge of is second light turning on.

The more mass one of these protostars had, the more gravitational pressure there was within the protostar.  If enough material gathered the hydrogen and helium atoms stopped having enough elbow room to really bounce around and they started smashing into each other, fusing their nucleuses of protons and neutrons into each other forming newer, denser matter.  This is how we got things like lithium (hydrogen + helium), beryllium (helium + helium), and boron (lithium + helium, or beryllium + hydrogen), and so on.  Whenever two atoms smashed together and fused, an insane amount of radiation was emitted.  Once fusion reactions began in the very dense core the protostar ceased to exist, for now it had become a man–I mean a STAR.

Inside a star (UC Berkeley)
Inside a star (UC Berkeley)

This star wasn’t that bright, literally; there was still a lot of gas blocking the light being emitted.  Inside the baby star as more and more nuclear reactions were taking place the high-energy photons being released from these reactions began to push the star out against the pull from gravity.  Gravitational pressure wants it to be a nice dense sphere, while radiation pressure wants everything to explode and scatter.  Eventually, the stellar winds of light being emitted by the new star blow away the remaining loitering cloud of gas lingering around, and the light is now able to broadcast the star’s existence to the Universe.  It is during this time when the star finally gets the hang of the battling pressures and finds itself perfectly balanced between the squeeze of gravity and the push of radiation it enters a state known as “hydrostatic equilibrium.”  The star has now begun the “main sequence” of its life.  Just learning the words “hydrostatic equilibrium” has now given you half of a bachelors of science in Astrophysics, by the way.  Good job!

Oh, how these were the halcyon days for our new star.  Happily smashing hydrogen atoms into helium, emitting light into the Universe, having no cares… until that fateful day.  That unforgettable, fateful day.  The day the hydrogen-fusion died.  After tens of millions, or even possibly billions of years of carefree atom smashing our star found itself old and not able to get it up like it used to all of a sudden. “I swear, this has literally never happened to me before!” Exclaimed the star to no one, because stars can’t talk and there wasn’t anything that existed yet who could listen to its cries.

You see, as the star was fusing all these hydrogen atoms into helium, at the very center of the star, the core, the newly formed helium began to pack into a dense degenerate ball of non-fusion.  As the star made more and more helium, this degenerate core got bigger and bigger.  Hydrogen is easy to fuse; it doesn’t take much energy (relatively speaking) to do it and you get a whole bunch of energy out of the reaction to do it some more.  Helium, on the other hand, takes a lot more energy to make them fuse together, and you are not going to get as much energy out of the reaction as you do with the hydrogen. When the core gets bigger and bigger, with more and more helium that refuses to fuse into anything, then the hydrogen fusion zone gets smaller and smaller.  Gravitational pressure is its greatest at the center of the star.  If the center of the star is full of a bunch of stupid helium then the only hydrogen fusion that is going on is at the outside of the degenerate core where gravitational pressure is weaker.  Soon, the number of hydrogen fusions that occur become less and less, and the radiation pressure gets lower and lower, and the star gets all limp and tiny as it begins to collapse in on itself.

There is a silver lining to this rather doomed state; as the star collapses in on itself the gravitational pressure starts to climb like it did when the start first burst onto the scene.  The degenerate helium core starts to feel the squeeze, starts to feel the pressure, and just can’t hold out any longer and *squish*.  A whole bunch of helium just fused into Boron, the star just experienced what is known as a “helium flash” as the core begins to switch to burning helium.  This causes the start to inflate and as it gets bigger it grows redder in color because the envelope of gas surrounding the star is cooler with more surface area.

Hydrogen burning leads to helium burning (University of Manitoba)
Hydrogen burning leads to helium burning (University of Manitoba)

If our star is really big, much bigger than our own Sun, then the core starts to fill up with carbon that was created out of fusing all sorts of combos of helium, hydrogen, and other light elements.  Just like before, the radiation pressure is weaker on the outside of the core where the helium is being smushed together, blah, blah, blah… Eventually *squish* we have a carbon flash.  Now the star is a geezer burning carbon.  If the star is really, really big, like nine times or more larger than our Sun, it will go through oxygen, neon, and silicon flashes.

Stars are born, they get old, and like all things, they die.  Sit down, clutch your security blanket, and steady your heart; it’s time to talk about death.  Stellar death can range from the most pitiful whimper to the greatest party in the Universe.  A teeny tiny star, like a red dwarf star, will never die.  The smaller the star, the more efficiently it burns its hydrogen and can last anywhere from 10 trillion to 100 trillion years or more!  A star like our sun will last about 10 billion years before it withers and does not have the mass necessary to fuse anything above carbon.  The star contracts under its own gravitational pressure, gets really hot, and the remaining gas inside the star either becomes part of a dense core or gets blasted away by the heat.  The star is dead.  This is death by white dwarf.

The exciting death, the only one anyone really cares about, is the death of big mutherfukkers.  Stars that are anywhere from nine to twenty five times larger than our own sun.  These guys know how to party.  A nine solar mass star might live 100 million years.  A twenty-five solar mass star may only last as little as 5 million years.  These idiots burn everything they’ve got as fast as they can.  They’ll spend about four million years burning hydrogen, one million burning helium, 500 years burning carbon, six months burning oxygen, a week burning neon, and maybe one day burning silicon.  The size of the degenerate core at this point is gigantic.  The moment the core itself is more than 1.44 times the mass of our own Sun it can’t handle it, and everything collapses like a house of cards.

Crab Nebula
The supernovae remnant known as the Crab Nebula

Imagine the core.  It’s dense, it’s hot.  There is no room to wiggle.  It’s basically the nuclei of atoms stacked on the nuclei of other atoms.  Just protons, electrons and neutrons chillin’ with nowhere to go.   Nothing but the weak nuclear force to keep them separated, and the strong nuclear force to keep them what they are.  Things are about to change.  The moment the core reaches 1.44 solar masses, known as the “Chandrasekhar Limit”, gravity has now become stronger than the weak nuclear force and the protons and electrons fuse to become neutrons (positive + negative = neutral).  This sudden collapse of the core draws in the remaining envelope surrounding it.  The instant and sudden gravitational pressure squeezes everything together and causes the star to burn upwards of 10% of it’s entire mass in one instant.  The star has gone supernovae.

When the star is just being a star, the heaviest element it can make through fusion is iron (26 protons), in a supernovae everything else is made.  Anything heavier than iron comes from a supernovae; radium, iridium, lead, gold, silver, krypton, everything else all the way up to uranium get blasted into existence by the intense explosion of a supernovae.  When a supernovae explodes it outshines the other 100 billion stars in its galaxy combined for an entire month!

This explosion can leave behind one of two things, if the star is big, but not freakishly so, a neutron star will be all that is left.  A dense dark ball of nothing but neutrons a few kilometers wide spinning really fast.  One spoonful of a neutron star would weigh hundreds of millions of pounds… If you could get yourself and a spoon close enough to the surface without somehow become nothing but neutrons yourself, of course.  The second option is the one that overwhelms the strong nuclear force that keeps quarks in their shape of something like a neutron.  If the envelope around the star is really massive when the core collapses at the moment of supernovae, an excess of material can be added to the core that overwhelms the neutrons and forces them to become an infinitely dense singularity, like the point of space from which the Big Bang began.  A black hole.

I’m not going to go into the physics of a black hole.  That would require another few months of writing to describe the mind fucks that go on inside one.  Another time, maybe (but probably not).

Stars die and make more stars (NASA/JPL)
Stars die and make more stars (NASA/JPL)

The explosion of a supernovae is tremendous.  If one occurred within 30 light years of Earth everything would die.  Everything.  Dead.  Forever.  Sanitized.  Even miniscule things like bacteria.  Gone.  EVERYTHING!  The blast wave from a supernovae will travel as fast as 40% the speed of light.  This wall of newly formed elements find themselves slamming into previously content clouds of gas in the galaxy and generate new bouts of star formation.  This time instead of the clouds only being made up of 75% hydrogen and 25% helium, they’re composed of 74% hydrogen, 25% helium, and 1% other things heavier than that.

After about 1300 generations of super giant stars going supernovae we find ourselves in the present where newly formed stars have as much as 5-10% elements heavier than helium.  It is these heavier elements that comprise the elements that make every rock you have ever held, every planet in existence, and every comet that has streaked through the cosmos.  Carl Sagan was right, we are nothing but stardust.

The next installment I will learn you on how the planets formed and just what the hell meteorites are made of.  Until then, revel in the fact that you just became an expert cosmologist.  You’re welcome!