Last Friday, I had the pleasure of attending a sold-out event at Pick-Staiger Concert Hall to see my childhood hero Bill Nye speak about climate-change, space and science education. What resonated with me during the talk was his reminder of humanity’s special relationship to Earth and to the universe.
When thinking about space, my brain often defaults to a picture of a black unreachable land covered in scattered glowing dots, like an abstraction that is far removed from my daily world. What is even more overwhelming is the estimation that there are more stars in the universe than grains of sand on all the beaches on Earth. From the perspective of the universe, we are, as explained by the late renowned astrophysicist Carl Sagan, a pale blue dot. And yet what is truly amazing is that all of life as we know it has happened, and is happening on this tiny speck.
While we may seem small, the elements within us come from and are shared with our grand, cosmic neighbors. Everything that comprises you and me, from our blood vessels to the iron that is in the hemoglobin of our red blood cells, are compositions of atoms that came from exploding stars following the birth of the universe.
The stars that formed following the Big Bang were the first element-producing factories. During the main sequence of a star’s development, hydrogen molecules fused together under high pressure environments to form helium. If you recall from your basic science classes, hydrogen is the simplest element with a single proton and electron. If you have four hydrogen nuclei smashed together at extraordinarily high pressures, you form the next lightest element, helium. Once stars started smashing helium nuclei, they made carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, and eventually iron. During a supernova, when a star faced its final moments and explodes, there was enough heat to form elements heavier than iron, including gold, silver, lead, and uranium. What remained were clouds of dust that began to form other stars, planets, and components of living beings such as ourselves.
When we study the mysteries of space, we become cognizant of our origins. Echoing Sagan, who was his former teacher, Bill Nye proposed that “space brings out the best in us…When we explore space, we’re learning about ourselves, about the cosmos and our place within it. It is an amazing insight, an astonishing thing that you and I are made of the same stuff as stars.” Space starts to feel a lot closer to home as I am reminded that just as we are part of the universe, we are also sentient vessels of the grand landscape that is the cosmos.
That pixel labelled Earth isn’t a dust particle on your computer screen, but a snapshot of Earth taken by the Voyager 1 space probe from 6 billion kilometers away. Image credit: NASA JP