December 28, 1997 in City

We Are All Made Of Stardust

Derrick Z. Jackson The Boston Globe
 
Tags:column

How incredible to see the death of stars through the Hubble telescope. How humbling it is to think that no matter how much wealth we accumulate, how many wars we win, how many shopping malls we build, how many gifts we receive, how fast our computers get, how many feet are fitted with $100 sneakers, the Earth is going to end up as an overcooked meatball.

We can take some solace that the Sun will not go to broil for another six billion years. Still, in this season when spiritual reflection and unanswerable mysteries of our existence are in heavy competition with Toys “R” Us, we can use a periodic reminder that it may be true in the short term that he or she with the most toys wins, but short of warp-speed travel, we are destined to dance in a tango of atomic particles.

Look at the bright side. If cosmic winds blow the right way, our remains may end up in gift wrap for creatures billions of years from now. Consider this passage in “Secrets of the Night Sky” by astronomer Bob Berman: “Our ancestral roots, those of every human, animal, mushroom, and bit of moss, trace back to atoms of a single cosmic cloud and a brilliant unknown star, from whose marriage we issued. Like a Medusa with a trillion heads, we lived then as a single entity.

“It started, oddly enough, with death. And just not any death. Not a quiet dying that might pass unnoticed in the hallways of the Galaxy. This was the explosive downfall of a massive blue sun, a supernova. The sudden blinding brilliance of its last cosmic moments briefly rivaled the light of a billion suns.

“We were that exploding star. Our atoms were its body … The explosion created such high temperatures that the debris from the crumbling star hurtled in all directions at speeds that exceeded a bullet’s by a thousand to one. New atomic elements arose like phoenixes. The ephemeral furnace did what ordinary stellar interiors cannot: forged elements heavier than iron - for such things can be constructed only in the fantastic but temperamental temperatures of a supernova.

“That our own Earth and even our bodies contain these substances - elements like the iodine in our thyroid glands - is the Rosetta Stone of our origins. It’s proof of our family tree; our progenitor was a supernova … Thus our common origins transcend even the most exalted individual’s family tree. Walking about the streets of our cities and living next door, other fragments of the same departed sun go on errands or change their children’s diapers. Their every act is a confirmation that the unknown blue sun’s death did not pass quite without consequence. We are made of stardust.

“We can find no trace of any previous universe because the Big Bang’s unimaginable temperature and density pressure-cooked everything, and then some. Not one fragment of an atomic particle can have survived from the BeforeRealm to provide the faintest clue. The delete button was pushed, the machine reformatted, melted, vaporized, and reconstructed. No files are retrievable … whether the universe did begin at a fixed point in time or whether it has always existed as a birthlessly infinite item - either way, its ultimate source remains a mystery fully as profound as when the first humans considered the question.

“When all the onion layers have been peeled away, science’s careful fingers may find themselves grasping not only empty air, but a vacuum inhabiting the wrong dimension. Like someone trying to use a screwdriver’s handle as a hammer, our present frustration may stem from employing the wrong tool for the job. The ultimate genesis of the universe may well demand a level of awareness entirely beyond mathematics, and perhaps even outside the aegis of linear thought.

“This is not anti-intellectual. It is a realistic humility born of the improbability that our way of thinking can imbibe every morsel of universal reality. Still, we’re not about to jump ship: It was science that brought us to this point in the first place. Our very knowledge of the night’s nurseries and the celestial birth surrounding us in space was discovered through the ability to construct telescopes and then to comprehend what was seen.

“It has enabled us to raise the Orion and its myriad sister nebulas from their medieval designation of ‘cloud’ to today’s understanding that here, before our eyes, is nothing less than the birthplace of planets and suns! … Orion crosses the icy night, a cosmic cradle bestowing the awesome breath of creation on the next generation of our galaxy’s life.”

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