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Atoms, Life, and the Cosmos

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Atoms, Life, and the Cosmos


British astrophysicist and Cambridge University professor Sir Martin Rees discusses the history and
future of the cosmos in the article below. By studying the life cycles of stars, astrophysicists have
learned much about the origin of the elements and of the universe itself.

Atoms, Life, and the Cosmos


By Sir Martin Rees

Whilst this planet has been cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple
a beginning forms most wonderful have been and are being evolved.
These are the closing words of Charles Darwin's Origin of Species.
Cosmologists go back before Darwin's simple beginning and aim to set our solar system in
a grand evolutionary scheme stretching back to the emergence of the Milky Way galaxy
right back, even, to the big bang that set our entire observable universe expanding.
The sun's light takes eight minutes to reach the Earth, and only a few hours to pass beyond
Neptune and Pluto, the outermost planets. The solar system is a minuscule foreground feature
in a vista of stars and galaxies stretching for billions of light years. But even if we knew
nothing of the vast spatial scales revealed by modern telescopes, the solar system itself
stretches our conception of time scales to an extent that is hard to relate to human (or even
historical) perspectives. Moreover, our own star, the sun, is less than halfway through its life.
We are still near the simple beginning of the evolutionary story.
Suppose America had existed forever, and you were walking across it, starting on the East
Coast when the Earth formed, and ending up in California when the sun was about to die. To
make this journey, you would have to take one step every 2000 years. A mere three or four
steps would represent all recorded history. Moreover, these steps would be just before the
halfway stage, somewhere in Kansas, perhapsin no sense the journey's culmination.
The life cycle of our sun is well understood. The protosun condensed from a cosmic gas
cloud. Gravity pulled it together until its center got squeezed hot enough to trigger nuclear
fusionthe process that makes hydrogen bombs explode. This process supplies power at just
the rate needed to balance the heat shining from its surface, on which life on Earth depends.
Less than half the sun's central hydrogen has so far been used up, even though it's already 4.5
billion years old. The sun will keep shining for a further 5 billion years. It will then swell up
to become a red giant, large and bright enough to engulf the inner planets, and to vaporize all
life on Earth. After this red giant phase, some outer layers are blown off, leaving a white
dwarfa dense star no larger than the Earth, that will shine with a dull glow, no brighter than
the full moon today, on whatever remains of the solar system.
Astronomers can calculate the life cycle of stars like the sun. But how can we check such
claims? Stars live so long compared to astronomers that we're granted just a single
snapshot of each one's life. But just as it wouldn't take a newly landed Martian long to infer
the life cycle of trees or people, astronomers can test their theories by surveying whole
populations of stars. Even in the 18th century, English astronomer William Herschel realized
this analogy. To quote him:

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Is it not almost the same thing, whether we live successively to witness the germination,
blooming fading and withering of a plant, or whether a vast number of specimens,
selected from every stage through which the plant passes be brought at once to our view?
Stars are still forming today. About 7000 light-years away lies the Eagle Nebula, a
spectacular cloud containing enough gas and dust to make millions of stars. It contains bright
young stars; it even contains protostars that are still condensing, and haven't yet got hot
enough to ignite their nuclear fuel. Spinning discs of dusty gas encircle some protostars.
These are proto-solar systems: dust particles would stick together to make rocky
planetesimals, which merge together to make planets.
Planetary systems often used to be attributed to improbable and unusual eventsone idea,
for instance, was that another star passed so close to the sun that its gravity tore out a stream
of gas, which cooled to form the planets. But there now seems no reason to believe that
planet formation requires any rare accident. Planets are a natural concomitant of star
formation and should therefore be widespread.
Fully formed planets orbiting other stars would be very faint. However, their effect can be
discerned indirectly. A star and its attendant planets trace out orbits that pivot around their
fixed common center of mass, called the barycenter. The barycenter is, of course, much
closer to the star than to the planet, because the star is much heavier. The star is therefore
displaced only slightly. But precise measurements have revealed small motions induced by
orbiting planets.
Planets on which life could evolve, as it did here on Earth, must be rather special. Their
gravity must pull strongly enough to prevent the atmosphere from evaporating into space;
they must be neither too hot nor too cold, and therefore the right distance from a long-lived
and stable star. Only a small proportion of planets meet these conditions, but planetary
systems are (we believe) so common in our galaxy that Earth-like planets would be numbered
in millions. In the United States, some officials of the National Aeronautics and Space
Administration (NASA) have urged that a search for planets should become a main thrust of
the space program: the goal is of immense scientific interest.
The technical challenges of actually detecting Earth-like planets is not insurmountable, and
once a candidate had been seen, several things could be learned about it. Suppose an
astronomer 40 light-years away had detected our Earthit would be, in American
astronomer Carl Sagan's phrase, a pale blue dot, seeming very close to a star (our sun) that
outshines it by many million times. If Earth could be seen at all, its light would be analyzed,
and would reveal that it had been transformed (and oxygenated) by a biosphere. The shade of
blue would be slightly different, depending on whether the Pacific Ocean or the Eurasian
landmass was facing us. Distant astronomers could therefore, by repeated observation, infer
that the Earth was spinning, and learn the length of its day, and even infer something of its
topography and climate.
Violent Stellar Deaths and Cosmic Alchemy
Not everything in the cosmos happens slowly. Sometimes stars explode catastrophically as
supernovae. The most famous such event was observed in AD 1054. In July of that year,
Yang Wei-Te, the Chief Computer of the Calendar, reported that a guest star had appeared.
At that place in the sky there now lies the Crab Nebulathe expanding debris from this
explosion. This nebula will remain visible, gradually expanding and fading, for a few
thousand years; it will then merge into the very dilute gas and dust that pervades interstellar
space.

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The closest supernova of the 20th centurynot as close as the Crab Nebula, but bright
enough to be studied in detailflared up in 1987. Its brightening and gradual fading were
followed not only by optical astronomers but by those using the other modern techniques
radio, X-ray, and gamma-ray telescopeswhich have opened new windows on the
universe. Theorists were given a chance to check the elaborate computer calculations they
had developed over the previous decade.
These events fascinate astronomers. But why should anyone else care about stellar explosions
thousands of light years away? Because, were it not for supernovae, the complexities of life
on Earth (and perhaps elsewhere) could never have emerged. Ninety-two different kinds of
atom occur naturally on Earth, but some are vastly more common than others. For every 10
atoms of carbon, you would find, on average, 20 of oxygen, and about 5 each of nitrogen and
iron. But gold is a hundred million times rarer than oxygen, and othersuranium for
instanceare rarer still.
Everything that's ever been written in our language is made from an alphabet of just 26
letters. Likewise, the 92 atoms of the periodic table can be combined in a huge number of
different ways. The most important ingredients of living things (ourselves included) are
carbon and oxygen atoms, linked (along with others) into long chainlike molecules of huge
complexity. We couldn't exist if these particular atoms were not common on the Earth.
The basic building blocks, the chemical elements, have the same proportions as when the
solar system formed about 4.5 billion years ago. We'd like to understand why the atoms were
dealt out in these particular proportions. We could leave it at thatperhaps the creator
turned 92 different knobs. But astrophysics offers a less ad hoc explanation.
Stars more than ten times heavier than the sun have complicated life cycles. Their central
hydrogen gets consumed (and turned to helium) hundreds of times more quickly than the
sun's, and they shine much more brightly in consequence. Gravity then squeezes them
further, and their central temperature rises still higher, until helium atoms can themselves
stick together to make the nuclei of heavier atomscarbon (6 protons), oxygen (8 protons),
and iron (26 protons). A kind of onion skin structure develops: a layer of carbon surrounds
one of oxygen, which in turn surrounds a layer of silicon. The hotter inner layers have been
transmuted further up the periodic table and surround a core that is mainly iron.
When their fuel has all been consumed (in other words, when their hot centers are transmuted
into iron), big stars face a crisis. A catastrophic infalling compresses the stellar core to
neutron densities, triggering a colossal explosion. This explosion manifests itself as a
supernova of the kind that created the Crab Nebula.
The outer layers of a star, by the time a supernova explosion blows them off, contain the
outcome of all the nuclear alchemy that kept the star shining over its entire lifetime. There is
a lot of oxygen and carbon in this mixture, plus traces of many other elements. The calculated
mix is gratifyingly close to the proportions now observed in our solar system.
An oxygen atom, forged from helium in an early star and flung out in a supernova explosion,
could have wandered for hundreds of millions of years between the stars. It might then have
found itself in a dense interstellar cloud, which collapsed under its own gravity to form stars.
It may have joined one of the less massive stars, each surrounded by a spinning gaseous disc
that condensed into a retinue of planets. One such star could have been our sun. That oxygen
atom may have found itself in the newly forming Earth, perhaps eventually in a human cell.
Why are carbon and oxygen atoms so common here on Earth, but gold and uranium so rare?
This everyday question isn't unanswerablebut the answer involves ancient stars that

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exploded more than 5 billion years ago, before our solar system formed. The cosmos is a
unity. To understand ourselves, we must understand the stars.
Life
How life might actually emerge on a planet, even given the right physical environment, raises
vastly more subtle issues. Life may take forms that we wouldn't recognize and can't
conceive of. However, the probability that life of the terrestrial variety emerges elsewhere
depends on the answers to two questions. First, how frequently do Earth-like environments
occur? Second, what is the chance that life develops even when the physical conditions are
right?
The first of these questions has already been addressed: suitable planets should be
common. Even when a planet offers a propitious environment, what is the chance that
simple organisms emerge and evolve into something that can be called intelligent? This
second question is one for biologists, not for astronomers. It is much more difficult to answer,
and there seems to be no consensus among the experts. Given the right basic chemicals, and
an environment with suitable gravity and temperature, the green fuse of life may be easy to
ignite. Or it may not: we can't be sure. Nor do we know how drastically the course of
evolution has been channeled by random eventscometary impacts, extinctions, etc. If
evolution on Earth could be rerun, the outcome could have been quite different. Even when
simple life exists, we don't know the chances that it evolves towards intelligence, nor how
long it persists even when it does emerge. Intelligent life could be natural, or it could have
involved a chain of accidents so surpassingly rare that nothing remotely like it has happened
anywhere else in our galaxy.
The Big Bang
Stars are the furnaces that forge, from pristine hydrogen, all the elements of the periodic
table. But where did the original hydrogen come from? To answer this question, we must
extend our horizons to the so-called big bang. If the entire universe had once been squeezed
hotter than a star, nuclear reactions could have happened thenindeed, some early
proponents of the big bang theory suspected that the chemical elements were indeed forged in
the early universe. However, the expansion turns out to have been too fast to allow carbon,
iron, and other elements to be built up. But there would be enough time for about 25 per cent
of the hydrogen to be turned into helium, and to make traces of deuterium (hydrogen with a
neutron as well as the single proton in its nucleus) and lithium.
What's remarkable is that the proportion of helium in old stars and nebulae turns out to be
just about what's calculated to emerge from the big bang. As a bonus, the proportions of
lithium and deuterium also agree. Moreover, these particular elements couldn't be made in
stars, even though the stellar nucleogenesis scenario seemed to work so well for carbon,
oxygen, etc. Even the oldest objects contain a lot of heliumfar more than could have been
made in stars; and deuterium is so fragile that it is destroyed rather than created in stars.
These considerations therefore vindicate an extrapolation right back to when the universe was
hot enough for nuclear reactions to occurthat's when it was just a few seconds old.
How strong is the evidence for a big bang? Over the past few years, the case for a big bang
has had several boosts. The grounds for extrapolating back to the stage when the universe had
been expanding for a few seconds (when the helium formed) deserve to be taken as seriously
as, for instance, ideas about the early history of our Earth, which are based on inferences by
geologists and fossil hunters which are equally indirect (and less quantitative).
There are some true believers. The great Soviet cosmologist Yakov Zeldovich once claimed

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Atoms, Life, and the Cosmos

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that the big bang was as certain that the Earth goes round the sun (even though he must
have known his compatriot Lev Landau's dictum that cosmologists are often in error but
never in doubt). The big bang concept gives us the general framework to address more
detailed questions about how the universe has evolved over its 10 billion to 15 billion year
history.
You may be thinking: Isn't it absurdly presumptuous to claim to know anything about the
early stages of our entire observable universe? Not necessarily. It is complexity, and not
sheer size, that makes things hard to understanda star is simpler than an insect, for
instance. In the primordial fireball everything must have been broken down into its simplest
constituents. The early universe really could be less baffling, and more within our grasp, than
the smallest living organism. It's biologists and the Darwinians who face the toughest
challenge.
About the author: Sir Martin Rees is astronomer royal, Royal Society research professor at
the Institute of Astronomy, Cambridge University, in England and author of Before the
Beginning: Our Universe and Others.
Microsoft Encarta 2006. 1993-2005 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved.

Microsoft Encarta 2006. 1993-2005 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved.