Cosmos - Carl Sagan (1980)
Chapter 9. THE LIVES OF THE STARS
We had the sky, up there, all speckled with stars, and we used to lay on our backs and look up at them, and discuss about whether they was made, or only just happened.
—Mark Twain, Huckleberry Finn
I have … a terrible need … shall I say the word?… of religion. Then I go out at night and paint the stars.
—Vincent van Gogh
To make an apple pie, you need wheat, apples, a pinch of this and that, and the heat of the oven. The ingredients are made of molecules—sugar, say, or water. The molecules, in turn, are made of atoms—carbon, oxygen, hydrogen and a few others. Where do these atoms come from? Except for hydrogen, they are all made in stars. A star is a kind of cosmic kitchen inside which atoms of hydrogen are cooked into heavier atoms. Stars condense from interstellar gas and dust, which are composed mostly of hydrogen. But the hydrogen was made in the Big Bang, the explosion that began the Cosmos. If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.
Suppose you take an apple pie and cut it in half; take one of the two pieces, cut it in half; and, in the spirit of Democritus, continue. How many cuts before you are down to a single atom? The answer is about ninety successive cuts. Of course, no knife could be sharp enough, the pie is too crumbly, and the atom would in any case be too small to see unaided. But there is a way to do it.
At Cambridge University in England, in the forty-five years centered on 1910, the nature of the atom was first understood—partly by shooting pieces of atoms at atoms and watching how they bounce off. A typical atom has a kind of cloud of electrons on the outside. Electrons are electrically charged, as their name suggests. The charge is arbitrarily called negative. Electrons determine the chemical properties of the atom—the glitter of gold, the cold feel of iron, the crystal structure of the carbon diamond. Deep inside the atom, hidden far beneath the electron cloud, is the nucleus, generally composed of positively charged protons and electrically neutral neutrons. Atoms are very small—one hundred million of them end to end would be as large as the tip of your little finger. But the nucleus is a hundred thousand times smaller still, which is part of the reason it took so long to be discovered.* Nevertheless, most of the mass of an atom is in its nucleus; the electrons are by comparison just clouds of moving fluff. Atoms are mainly empty space. Matter is composed chiefly of nothing.
I am made of atoms. My elbow, which is resting on the table before me, is made of atoms. The table is made of atoms. But if atoms are so small and empty and the nuclei smaller still, why does the table hold me up? Why, as Arthur Eddington liked to ask, do the nuclei that comprise my elbow not slide effortlessly through the nuclei that comprise the table? Why don’t I wind up on the floor? Or fall straight through the Earth?
The answer is the electron cloud. The outside of an atom in my elbow has a negative electrical charge. So does every atom in the table. But negative charges repel each other. My elbow does not slither through the table because atoms have electrons around their nuclei and because electrical forces are strong. Everyday life depends on the structure of the atom, Turn off the electrical charges and everything crumbles to an invisible fine dust. Without electrical forces, there would no longer be things in the universe—merely diffuse clouds of electrons, protons and neutrons, and gravitating spheres of elementary particles, the featureless remnants of worlds.
When we consider cutting an apple pie, continuing down beyond a single atom, we confront an infinity of the very small. And when we look up at the night sky, we confront an infinity of the very large. These infinities represent an unending regress that goes on not just very far, but forever. If you stand between two mirrors—in a barber shop, say—you see a large number of images of yourself, each the reflection of another. You cannot see an infinity of images because the mirrors are not perfectly flat and aligned, because light does not travel infinitely fast, and because you are in the way. When we talk about infinity we are talking about a quantity greater than any number, no matter how large.
The American mathematician Edward Kasner once asked his nine-year-old nephew to invent a name for an extremely large number—ten to the power one hundred (10100), a one followed by a hundred zeroes. The boy called it a googol. Here it is: 10, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000. You, too, can make up your own very large numbers and give them strange names. Try it. It has a certain charm, especially if you happen to be nine.
If a googol seems large, consider a googolplex. It is ten to the power of a googol—that is, a one followed by a googol zeros. By comparison, the total number of atoms in your body is about 1028, and the total number of elementary particles—protons and neutrons and electrons—in the observable universe is about 1080. If the universe were packed solid* with neutrons, say, so there was no empty space anywhere, there would still be only about 10128 particles in it, quite a bit more than a googol but trivially small compared to a googolplex. And yet these numbers, the googol and the googolplex, do not approach, they come nowhere near, the idea of infinity. A googolplex is precisely as far from infinity as is the number one. We could try to write out a googolplex, but it is a forlorn ambition. A piece of paper large enough to have all the zeroes in a googolplex written out explicitly could not be stuffed into the known universe. Happily, there is a simpler and very concise way of writing a googolplex: 1010l00; and even infinity: ∞ (pronounced “infinity”).
In a burnt apple pie, the char is mostly carbon. Ninety cuts and you come to a carbon atom, with six protons and six neutrons in its nucleus and six electrons in the exterior cloud. If we were to pull a chunk out of the nucleus—say, one with two protons and two neutrons—it would be not the nucleus of a carbon atom, but the nucleus of a helium atom. Such a cutting or fission of atomic nuclei occurs in nuclear weapons and conventional nuclear power plants, although it is not carbon that is split. If you make the ninety-first cut of the apple pie, if you slice a carbon nucleus, you make not a smaller piece of carbon, but something else—an atom with completely different chemical properties. If you cut an atom, you transmute the elements.
But suppose we go farther. Atoms are made of protons, neutrons and electrons. Can we cut a proton? If we bombard protons at high energies with other elementary particles—other protons, say—we begin to glimpse more fundamental units hiding inside the proton. Physicists now propose that so-called elementary particles such as protons and neutrons are in fact made of still more elementary particles called quarks, which come in a variety of “colors” and “flavors,” as their properties have been termed in a poignant attempt to make the subnuclear world a little more like home. Are quarks the ultimate constituents of matter, or are they too composed of still smaller and more elementary particles? Will we ever come to an end in our understanding of the nature of matter, or is there an infinite regression into more and more fundamental particles? This is one of the great unsolved problems in science.
The transmutation of the elements was pursued in medieval laboratories in a quest called alchemy. Many alchemists believed that all matter was a mixture of four elementary substances: water, air, earth and fire, an ancient Ionian speculation. By altering the relative proportions of earth and fire, say, you would be able, they thought, to change copper into gold. The field swarmed with charming frauds and con men, such as Cagliostro and the Count of Saint-Germain, who pretended not only to transmute the elements but also to hold the secret of immortality. Sometimes gold was hidden in a wand with a false bottom, to appear miraculously in a crucible at the end of some arduous experimental demonstration. With wealth and immortality the bait, the European nobility found itself transferring large sums to the practitioners of this dubious art. But there were more serious alchemists such as Paracelsus and even Isaac Newton. The money was not altogether wasted—new chemical elements, such as phosphorus, antimony and mercury, were discovered. In fact, the origin of modern chemistry can be traced directly to these experiments.
There are ninety-two chemically distinct kinds of naturally occurring atoms. They are called the chemical elements and until recently constituted everything on our planet, although they are mainly found combined into molecules. Water is a molecule made of hydrogen and oxygen atoms. Air is made mostly of the atoms nitrogen (N), oxygen (O), carbon (C), hydrogen (H) and argon (Ar), in the molecular forms N2, O2, CO2, H2O and Ar. The Earth itself is a very rich mixture of atoms, mostly silicon,* oxygen, aluminum, magnesium and iron. Fire is not made of chemical elements at all. It is a radiating plasma in which the high temperature has stripped some of the electrons from their nuclei. Not one of the four ancient Ionian and alchemical “elements” is in the modern sense an element at all: one is a molecule, two are mixtures of molecules, and the last is a plasma.
Since the time of the alchemists, more and more elements have been discovered, the latest to be found tending to be the rarest. Many are familiar—those that primarily make up the Earth; or those fundamental to life. Some are solids, some gases, and two (bromine and mercury) are liquids at room temperature. Scientists conventionally arrange them in order of complexity. The simplest, hydrogen, is element 1; the most complex, uranium, is element 92. Other elements are less familiar—hafnium, erbium, dyprosium and praseodymium, say, which we do not much bump into in everyday life. By and large, the more familiar an element is, the more abundant it is. The Earth contains a great deal of iron and rather little yttrium. There are, of course, exceptions to this rule, such as gold or uranium, elements prized because of arbitrary economic conventions or aesthetic judgments, or because they have remarkable practical applications.
The fact that atoms are composed of three kinds of elementary particles—protons, neutrons and electrons—is a comparatively recent finding. The neutron was not discovered until 1932. Modern physics and chemistry have reduced the complexity of the sensible world to an astonishing simplicity: three units put together in various patterns make, essentially, everything.
The neutrons, as we have said and as their name suggests, carry no electrical charge. The protons have a positive charge and the electrons an equal negative charge. The attraction between the unlike charges of electrons and protons is what holds the atom together. Since each atom is electrically neutral, the number of protons in the nucleus must exactly equal the number of electrons in the electron cloud. The chemistry of an atom depends only on the number of electrons, which equals the number of protons, and which is called the atomic number. Chemistry is simply numbers, an idea Pythagoras would have liked. If you are an atom with one proton, you are hydrogen; two, helium; three, lithium; four, beryllium; five, boron; six, carbon; seven, nitrogen; eight, oxygen; and so on, up to 92 protons, in which case your name is uranium.
Like charges, charges of the same sign, strongly repel one another. We can think of it as a dedicated mutual aversion to their own kind, a little as if the world were densely populated by anchorites and misanthropes. Electrons repel electrons. Protons repel protons. So how can a nucleus stick together? Why does it not instantly fly apart? Because there is another force of nature: not gravity, not electricity, but the short-range nuclear force, which, like a set of hooks that engage only when protons and neutrons come very close together, thereby overcomes the electrical repulsion among the protons. The neutrons, which contribute nuclear forces of attraction and no electrical forces of repulsion, provide a kind of glue that helps to hold the nucleus together. Longing for solitude, the hermits have been chained to their grumpy fellows and set among others given to indiscriminate and voluble amiability.
Two protons and two neutrons are the nucleus of a helium atom, which turns out to be very stable. Three helium nuclei make a carbon nucleus; four, oxygen; five, neon; six, magnesium; seven, silicon; eight, sulfur; and so on. Every time we add one or more protons and enough neutrons to keep the nucleus together, we make a new chemical element. If we subtract one proton and three neutrons from mercury, we make gold, the dream of the ancient alchemists. Beyond uranium there are other elements that do not naturally occur on Earth. They are synthesized by human beings and in most cases promptly fall to pieces. One of them, Element 94, is called plutonium and is one of the most toxic substances known. Unfortunately, it falls to pieces rather slowly.
Where do the naturally occurring elements come from? We might contemplate a separate creation of each atomic species. But the universe, all of it, almost everywhere, is 99 percent hydrogen and helium,* the two simplest elements. Helium, in fact, was detected on the Sun before it was found on the Earth—hence its name (from Helios, one of the Greek sun gods). Might the other chemical elements have somehow evolved from hydrogen and helium? To balance the electrical repulsion, pieces of nuclear matter would have to be brought very close together so that the short-range nuclear forces are engaged. This can happen only at very high temperatures where the particles are moving so fast that the repulsive force does not have time to act—temperatures of tens of millions of degrees. In nature, such high temperatures and attendant high pressures are common only in the insides of the stars.
We have examined our Sun, the nearest star, in various wavelengths from radio waves to ordinary visible light to X-rays, all of which arise only from its outermost layers. It is not exactly a red-hot stone, as Anaxagoras thought, but rather a great ball of hydrogen and helium gas, glowing because of its high temperatures, in the same way that a poker glows when it is brought to red heat. Anaxagoras was at least partly right. Violent solar storms produce brilliant flares that disrupt radio communications on Earth; and immense arching plumes of hot gas, guided by the Sun’s magnetic field, the solar prominences, which dwarf the Earth. The sunspots, sometimes visible to the naked eye at sunset, are cooler regions of enhanced magnetic field strength. All this incessant, roiling, turbulent activity is in the comparatively cool visible surface. We see only to temperatures of about 6,000 degrees. But the hidden interior of the Sun, where sunlight is being generated, is at 40 million degrees.
Stars and their accompanying planets are born in the gravitational collapse of a cloud of interstellar gas and dust. The collision of the gas molecules in the interior of the cloud heats it, eventually to the point where hydrogen begins to fuse into helium: four hydrogen nuclei combine to form a helium nucleus, with an attendant release of a gamma-ray photon. Suffering alternate absorption and emission by the overlying matter, gradually working its way toward the surface of the star, losing energy at every step, the photon’s epic journey takes a million years until, as visible light, it reaches the surface and is radiated to space. The star has turned on. The gravitational collapse of the prestellar cloud has been halted. The weight of the outer layers of the star is now supported by the high temperatures and pressures generated in the interior nuclear reactions. The Sun has been in such a stable situation for the past five billion years. Thermonuclear reactions like those in a hydrogen bomb are powering the Sun in a contained and continuous explosion, converting some four hundred million tons (4 × 1014 grams) of hydrogen into helium every second. When we look up at night and view the stars, everything we see is shining because of distant nuclear fusion.
In the direction of the star Deneb, in the constellation of Cygnus the Swan, is an enormous glowing superbubble of extremely hot gas, probably produced by supernova explosions, the deaths of stars, near the center of the bubble. At the periphery, interstellar matter is compressed by the supernova shock wave, triggering new generations of cloud collapse and star formation. In this sense, stars have parents; and, as is sometimes also true for humans, a parent may die in the birth of the child.
Stars like the Sun are born in batches, in great compressed cloud complexes such as the Orion Nebula. Seen from the outside, such clouds seem dark and gloomy. But inside, they are brilliantly illuminated by the hot newborn stars. Later, the stars wander out of their nursery to seek their fortunes in the Milky Way, stellar adolescents still surrounded by tufts of glowing nebulosity, residues still gravitationally attached of their amniotic gas. The Pleiades are a nearby example. As in the families of humans, the maturing stars journey far from home, and the siblings see little of each other. Somewhere in the Galaxy there are stars—perhaps dozens of them—that are the brothers and sisters of the Sun, formed from the same cloud complex, some 5 billion years ago. But we do not know which stars they are. They may, for all we know, be on the other side of the Milky Way.
The conversion of hydrogen into helium in the center of the Sun not only accounts for the Sun’s brightness in photons of visible light; it also produces a radiance of a more mysterious and ghostly kind: The Sun glows faintly in neutrinos, which, like photons, weigh nothing and travel at the speed of light. But neutrinos are not photons. They are not a kind of light. Neutrinos, like protons, electrons and neutrons, carry an intrinsic angular momentum, or spin, while photons have no spin at all. Matter is transparent to neutrinos, which pass almost effortlessly through the Earth and through the Sun. Only a tiny fraction of them is stopped by the intervening matter. As I look up at the Sun for a second, a billion neutrinos pass through my eyeball. Of course, they are not stopped at the retina as ordinary photons are but continue unmolested through the back of my head. The curious part is that if at night I look down at the ground, toward the place where the Sun would be (if the Earth were not in the way), almost exactly the same number of solar neutrinos pass through my eyeball, pouring through an interposed Earth which is as transparent to neutrinos as a pane of clear glass is to visible light.
If our knowledge of the solar interior is as complete as we think, and if we also understand the nuclear physics that makes neutrinos, then we should be able to calculate with fair accuracy how many solar neutrinos we should receive in a given area—such as my eyeball—in a given unit of time, such as a second. Experimental confirmation of the calculation is much more difficult. Since neutrinos pass directly through the Earth, we cannot catch a given one. But for a vast number of neutrinos, a small fraction will interact with matter and in the appropriate circumstances might be detected. Neutrinos can on rare occasion convert chlorine atoms into argon atoms, with the same total number of protons and neutrons. To detect the predicted solar neutrino flux, you need an immense amount of chlorine, so American physicists have poured a huge quantity of cleaning fluid into the Homestake Mine in Lead, South Dakota. The chlorine is microchemically swept for the newly produced argon. The more argon found, the more neutrinos inferred. These experiments imply that the Sun is dimmer in neutrinos than the calculations predict.
There is a real and unsolved mystery here. The low solar neutrino flux probably does not put our view of stellar nucleosynthesis in jeopardy, but it surely means something important. Proposed explanations range from the hypothesis that neutrinos fall to pieces during their passage between the Sun and the Earth to the idea that the nuclear fires in the solar interior are temporarily banked, sunlight being generated in our time partly by slow gravitational contraction. But neutrino astronomy is very new. For the moment we stand amazed at having created a tool that can peer directly into the blazing heart of the Sun. As the sensitivity of the neutrino telescope improves, it may become possible to probe nuclear fusion in the deep interiors of the nearby stars.
But hydrogen fusion cannot continue forever: in the Sun or any other star, there is only so much hydrogen fuel in its hot interior. The fate of a star, the end of its life cycle, depends very much on its initial mass. If, after whatever matter it has lost to space, a star retains two or three times the mass of the Sun, it ends its life cycle in a startlingly different mode than the Sun. But the Sun’s fate is spectacular enough. When the central hydrogen has all reacted to form helium, five or six billion years from now, the zone of hydrogen fusion will slowly migrate outward, an expanding shell of thermonuclear reactions, until it reaches the place where the temperatures are less than about ten million degrees. Then hydrogen fusion will shut itself off. Meanwhile the self-gravity of the Sun will force a renewed contraction of its helium-rich core and a further increase in its interior temperatures and pressures. The helium nuclei will be jammed together still more tightly, so much so that they begin to stick together, the hooks of their short-range nuclear forces becoming engaged despite the mutual electrical repulsion. The ash will become fuel, and the Sun will be triggered into a second round of fusion reactions.
This process will generate the elements carbon and oxygen and provide additional energy for the Sun to continue shining for a limited time. A star is a phoenix, destined to rise for a time from its own ashes.*Under the combined influence of hydrogen fusion in a thin shell far from the solar interior and the high temperature helium fusion in the core, the Sun will undergo a major change: its exterior will expand and cool. The Sun will become a red giant star, its visible surface so far from its interior that the gravity at its surface grows feeble, its atmosphere expanding into space in a kind of stellar gale. When the Sun, ruddy and bloated, becomes a red giant, it will envelop and devour the planets Mercury and Venus—and probably the Earth as well. The inner solar system will then reside within the Sun.
Billions of years from now, there will be a last perfect day on Earth. Thereafter the Sun will slowly become red and distended, presiding over an Earth sweltering even at the poles. The Arctic and Antarctic icecaps will melt, flooding the coasts of the world. The high oceanic temperatures will release more water vapor into the air, increasing cloudiness, shielding the Earth from sunlight and delaying the end a little. But solar evolution is inexorable. Eventually the oceans will boil, the atmosphere will evaporate away to space and a catastrophe of the most immense proportions imaginable will overtake our planet.† In the meantime, human beings will almost certainly have evolved into something quite different. Perhaps our descendants will be able to control or moderate stellar evolution. Or perhaps they will merely pick up and leave for Mars or Europa or Titan or, at last, as Robert Goddard envisioned, seek out an uninhabited planet in some young and promising planetary system.
The Sun’s stellar ash can be reused for fuel only up to a point. Eventually the time will come when the solar interior is all carbon and oxygen, when at the prevailing temperatures and pressures no further nuclear reactions can occur. After the central helium is almost all used up, the interior of the Sun will continue its postponed collapse, the temperatures will rise again, triggering a last round of nuclear reactions and expanding the solar atmosphere a little. In its death throes, the Sun will slowly pulsate, expanding and contracting once every few millennia, eventually spewing its atmosphere into space in one or more concentric shells of gas. The hot exposed solar interior will flood the shell with ultraviolet light, inducing a lovely red and blue fluorescence extending beyond the orbit of Pluto. Perhaps half the mass of the Sun will be lost in this way. The solar system will then be filled with an eerie radiance, the ghost of the Sun, outward bound.
When we look around us in our little corner of the Milky Way, we see many stars surrounded by spherical shells of glowing gas, the planetary nebulae. (They have nothing to do with planets, but some of them seemed reminiscent in inferior telescopes of the blue-green discs of Uranus and Neptune.) They appear as rings, but only because, as with soap bubbles, we see more of them at the periphery than at the center. Every planetary nebula is a token of a star in extremis. Near the central star there may be a retinue of dead worlds, the remnants of planets once full of life and now airless and ocean-free, bathed in a wraithlike luminance. The remains of the Sun, the exposed solar core at first enveloped in its planetary nebula, will be a small hot star, cooling to space, collapsed to a density unheard of on Earth, more than a ton per teaspoonful. Billions of years hence, the Sun will become a degenerate white dwarf, cooling like all those points of light we see at the centers of planetary nebulae from high surface temperatures to its ultimate state, a dark and dead black dwarf.
Two stars of roughly the same mass will evolve roughly in parallel. But a more massive star will spend its nuclear fuel faster, become a red giant sooner, and be first to enter the final white dwarf decline. There should therefore be, as there are, many cases of binary stars, one component a red giant, the other a white dwarf. Some such pairs are so close together that they touch, and the glowing stellar atmosphere flows from the distended red giant to the compact white dwarf, tending to fall on a particular province of the surface of the white dwarf. The hydrogen accumulates, compressed to higher and higher pressures and temperatures by the intense gravity of the white dwarf, until the stolen atmosphere of the red giant undergoes thermonuclear reactions, and the white dwarf briefly flares into brilliance. Such a binary is called a nova and has quite a different origin from a supernova. Novae occur only in binary systems and are powered by hydrogen fusion; supernovae occur in single stars and are powered by silicon fusion.
Atoms synthesized in the interiors of stars are commonly returned to the interstellar gas. Red giants find their outer atmospheres blowing away into space; planetary nebulae are the final stages of Sunlike stars blowing their tops. Supernovae violently eject much of their stellar mass into space. The atoms returned are, naturally, those most readily made in the thermonuclear reactions in stellar interiors: Hydrogen fuses into helium, helium into carbon, carbon into oxygen and thereafter, in massive stars, by the successive addition of further helium nuclei, neon, magnesium, silicon, sulfur, and so on are built—additions by stages, two protons and two neutrons per stage, all the way to iron. Direct fusion of silicon also generates iron, a pair of silicon atoms, each with twenty-eight protons and neutrons, joining, at a temperature of billions of degrees, to make an atom of iron with fifty-six protons and neutrons.
These are all familiar chemical elements. We recognize their names. Such stellar nuclear reactions do not readily generate erbium, hafnium, dyprosium, praseodymium or yttrium, but rather the elements we know in everyday life, elements returned to the interstellar gas, where they are swept up in a subsequent generation of cloud collapse and star and planet formation. All the elements of the Earth except hydrogen and some helium have been cooked by a kind of stellar alchemy billions of years ago in stars, some of which are today inconspicuous white dwarfs on the other side of the Milky Way Galaxy. The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of starstuff.
Some of the rarer elements are generated in the supernova explosion itself. We have relatively abundant gold and uranium on Earth only because many supernova explosions had occurred just before the solar system formed. Other planetary systems may have somewhat different amounts of our rare elements. Are there planets where the inhabitants proudly display pendants of niobium and bracelets of protactinium, while gold is a laboratory curiosity? Would our lives be improved if gold and uranium were as obscure and unimportant on Earth as praseodymium?
The origin and evolution of life are connected in the most intimate way with the origin and evolution of the stars. First: The very matter of which we are composed, the atoms that make life possible, were generated long ago and far away in giant red stars. The relative abundance of the chemical elements found in the Cosmos matches the relative abundance of atoms generated in stars so well as to leave little doubt that red giants and supernovae are the ovens and crucibles in which matter has been forged. The Sun is a second- or third-generation star. All the matter in it, all the matter you see around you, has been through one or two previous cycles of stellar alchemy. Second: The existence of certain varieties of heavy atoms on the Earth suggests that there was a nearby supernova explosion shortly before the solar system was formed. But this is unlikely to be a mere coincidence; more likely, the shock wave produced by the supernova compressed interstellar gas and dust and triggered the condensation of the solar system. Third: When the Sun turned on, its ultraviolet radiation poured into the atmosphere of the Earth; its warmth generated lightning; and these energy sources sparked the complex organic molecules that led to the origin of life. Fourth: Life on Earth runs almost exclusively on sunlight. Plants gather the photons and convert solar to chemical energy. Animals parasitize the plants. Farming is simply the methodical harvesting of sunlight, using plants as grudging intermediaries. We are, almost all of us, solar-powered. Finally, the hereditary changes called mutations provide the raw material for evolution. Mutations, from which nature selects its new inventory of life forms, are produced in part by cosmic rays—high-energy particles ejected almost at the speed of light in supernova explosions. The evolution of life on Earth is driven in part by the spectacular deaths of distant, massive suns.
Imagine carrying a Geiger counter and a piece of uranium ore to some place deep beneath the Earth—a gold mine, say, or a lava tube, a cave carved through the Earth by a river of molten rock. The sensitive counter clicks when exposed to gamma rays or to such high-energy charged particles as protons and helium nuclei. If we bring it close to the uranium ore, which is emitting helium nuclei in a spontaneous nuclear decay, the count rate, the number of clicks per minute, increases dramatically. If we drop the uranium ore into a heavy lead canister, the count rate declines substantially; the lead has absorbed the uranium radiation. But some clicks can still be heard. Of the remaining counts, a fraction come from natural radioactivity in the walls of the cave. But there are more clicks than can be accounted for by radioactivity. Some of them are caused by high-energy charged particles penetrating the roof. We are listening to cosmic rays, produced in another age in the depths of space. Cosmic rays, mainly electrons and protons, have bombarded the Earth for the entire history of life on our planet. A star destroys itself thousands of light-years away and produces cosmic rays that spiral through the Milky Way Galaxy for millions of years until, quite by accident, some of them strike the Earth, and our hereditary material. Perhaps some key steps in the development of the genetic code, or the Cambrian explosion, or bipedal stature among our ancestors were initiated by cosmic rays.
On July 4, in the year 1054, Chinese astonomers recorded what they called a “guest star” in the constellation of Taurus, the Bull. A star never before seen became brighter than any star in the sky. Halfway around the world, in the American Southwest, there was then a high culture, rich in astronomical tradition, that also witnessed this brilliant new star.* From carbon 14 dating of the remains of a charcoal fire, we know that in the middle eleventh century some Anasazi, the antecedents of the Hopi of today, were living under an overhanging ledge in what is today New Mexico. One of them seems to have drawn on the cliff overhang, protected from the weather, a picture of the new star. Its position relative to the crescent moon would have been just as was depicted. There is also a handprint, perhaps the artist’s signature.
This remarkable star, 5,000 light-years distant, is now called the Crab Supernova, because an astronomer centuries later was unaccountably reminded of a crab when looking at the explosion remnant through his telescope. The Crab Nebula is the remains of a massive star that blew itself up. The explosion was seen on Earth with the naked eye for three months. Easily visible in broad daylight, you could read by it at night. On the average, a supernova occurs in a given galaxy about once every century. During the lifetime of a typical galaxy, about ten billion years, a hundred million stars will have exploded—a great many, but still only about one star in a thousand. In the Milky Way, after the event of 1054, there was a supernova observed in 1572, and described by Tycho Brahe, and another, just after, in 1604, described by Johannes Kepler,† Unhappily, no supernova explosions have been observed in our Galaxy since the invention of the telescope, and astronomers have been chafing at the bit for some centuries.
Supernovae are now routinely observed in other galaxies. Among my candidates for the sentence that would most thoroughly astonish an astronomer of the early 1900’s is the following, from a paper by David Helfand and Knox Long in the December 6, 1979, issue of the British journal Nature: “On 5 March, 1979, an extremely intense burst of hard x-rays and gamma rays was recorded by the nine interplanetary spacecraft of the burst sensor network, and localized by time-of-flight determinations to a position coincident with the supernova remnant N49 in the Large Magellanic Cloud.” (The Large Magellanic Cloud, so-called because the first inhabitant of the Northern Hemisphere to notice it was Magellan, is a small satellite galaxy of the Milky Way, 180,000 light-years distant. There is also, as you might expect, a Small Magellanic Cloud.) However, in the same issue of Nature, E. P. Mazets and colleagues of the Ioffe Institute, Leningrad—who observed this source with the gammaray burst detector aboard the Venera 11 and 12 spacecraft on their way to land on Venus—argue that what is being seen is a flaring pulsar only a few hundred light-years away. But despite the close agreement in position Helfand and Long do not insist that the gamma-ray outburst is associated with the supernova remnant. They charitably consider many alternatives, including the surprising possibility that the source lies within the solar system. Perhaps it is the exhaust of an alien starship on its long voyage home. But a rousing of the stellar fires in N49 is a simpler hypothesis: we are sure there are such things as supernovae.
The fate of the inner solar system as the Sun becomes a red giant is grim enough. But at least the planets will never be melted and frizzled by an erupting supernova. That is a fate reserved for planets near stars more massive than the Sun. Since such stars with higher temperatures and pressures run rapidly through their store of nuclear fuel, their lifetimes are much shorter than the Sun’s. A star tens of times more massive than the Sun can stably convert hydrogen to helium for only a few million years before moving briefly on to more exotic nuclear reactions. Thus there is almost certainly not enough time for the evolution of advanced forms of life on any accompanying planets; and it will be rare that beings elsewhere can ever know that their star will become a supernova: if they live long enough to understand supernovae, their star is unlikely to become one.
The essential preliminary to a supernova explosion is the generation by silicon fusion of a massive iron core. Under enormous pressure, the free electrons in the stellar interior are forceably melded with the protons of the iron nuclei, the equal and opposite electrical charges canceling each other out; the inside of the star is turned into a single giant atomic nucleus, occupying a much smaller volume than the precursor electrons and iron nuclei. The core implodes violently, the exterior rebounds and a supernova explosion results. A supernova can be brighter than the combined radiance of all the other stars in the galaxy within which it is embedded. All those recently hatched massive blue-white supergiant stars in Orion are destined in the next few million years to become supernovae, a continuing cosmic fireworks in the constellation of the hunter.
The awesome supernova explosion ejects into space most of the matter of the precursor star—a little residual hydrogen and helium and significant amounts of other atoms, carbon and silicon, iron and uranium. Remaining is a core of hot neutrons, bound together by nuclear forces, a single, massive atomic nucleus with an atomic weight about 1056, a sun thirty kilometers across; a tiny, shrunken, dense, withered stellar fragment, a rapidly rotating neutron star. As the core of a massive red giant collapses to form such a neutron star, it spins faster. The neutron star at the center of the Crab Nebula is an immense atomic nucleus, about the size of Manhattan, spinning thirty times a second. Its powerful magnetic field, amplified during the collapse, traps charged particles rather as the much tinier magnetic field of Jupiter does. Electrons in the rotating magnetic field emit beamed radiation not only at radio frequencies but in visible light as well. If the Earth happens to lie in the beam of this cosmic lighthouse, we see it flash once each rotation. This is the reason it is called a pulsar. Blinking and ticking like a cosmic metronome, pulsars keep far better time than the most accurate ordinary clock. Long-term timing of the radio pulse rate of some pulsars, for instance, one called PSR 0329 + 54, suggests that these objects may have one or more small planetary companions. It is perhaps conceivable that a planet could survive the evolution of a star into a pulsar; or a planet could be captured at a later time. I wonder how the sky would look from the surface of such a planet.
Neutron star matter weighs about the same as an ordinary mountain per teaspoonful—so much that if you had a piece of it and let it go (you could hardly do otherwise), it might pass effortlessly through the Earth like a falling stone through air, carving a hole for itself completely through our planet and emerging out the other side—perhaps in China. People there might be out for a stroll, minding their own business, when a tiny lump of neutron star plummets out of the ground, hovers for a moment, and then returns beneath the Earth, providing at least a diversion from the routine of the day. If a piece of neutron star matter were dropped from nearby space, with the Earth rotating beneath it as it fell, it would plunge repeatedly through the rotating Earth, punching hundreds of thousands of holes before friction with the interior of our planet stopped the motion. Before it comes to rest at the center of the Earth, the inside of our planet might look briefly like a Swiss cheese until the subterranean flow of rock and metal healed the wounds. It is just as well that large lumps of neutron star matter are unknown on Earth. But small lumps are everywhere. The awesome power of the neutron star is lurking in the nucleus of every atom, hidden in every teacup and dormouse, every breath of air, every apple pie. The neutron star teaches us respect for the commonplace.
A star like the Sun will end its days, as we have seen, as a red giant and then a white dwarf. A collapsing star twice as massive as the Sun will become a supernova and then a neutron star. But a more massive star, left, after its supernova phase, with, say, five times the Sun’s mass, has an even more remarkable fate reserved for it—its gravity will turn it into a black hole. Suppose we had a magic gravity machine—a device with which we could control the Earth’s gravity, perhaps by turning a dial. Initially the dial is set at 1 g* and everything behaves as we have grown up to expect. The animals and plants on Earth and the structures of our buildings are all evolved or designed for 1 g. If the gravity were much less, there might be tall, spindly shapes that would not be tumbled or crushed by their own weight. If the gravity were much more, plants and animals and architecture would have to be short and squat and sturdy in order not to collapse. But even in a fairly strong gravity field, light would travel in a straight line, as it does, of course, in everyday life.
Consider a possibly typical group of Earth beings at the tea party from Alice in Wonderland. As we lower the gravity, things weigh less. Near 0 g the slightest motion sends our friends floating and tumbling up in the air. Spilled tea—or any other liquid—forms throbbing spherical globs in the air: the surface tension of the liquid overwhelms gravity. Balls of tea are everywhere. If now we dial 1 g again, we make a rain of tea. When we increase the gravity a little—from 1 g to, say, 3 or 4 g’s—everyone becomes immobilized: even moving a paw requires enormous effort. As a kindness we remove our friends from the domain of the gravity machine before we dial higher gravities still. The beam from a lantern travels in a perfectly straight line (as nearly as we can see) at a few g’s, as it does at 0 g. At 1000 g’s, the beam is still straight, but trees have become squashed and flattened; at 100,000 g’s, rocks are crushed by their own weight. Eventually, nothing at all survives except, through a special dispensation, the Cheshire cat. When the gravity approaches a billion g’s, something still more strange happens. The beam of light, which has until now been heading straight up into the sky, is beginning to bend. Under extremely strong gravitational accelerations, even light is affected. If we increase the gravity still more, the light is pulled back to the ground near us. Now the cosmic Cheshire cat has vanished; only its gravitational grin remains.
When the gravity is sufficiently high, nothing, not even light, can get out. Such a place is called a black hole. Enigmatically indifferent to its surroundings, it is a kind of cosmic Cheshire cat. When the density and gravity become sufficiently high, the black hole winks out and disappears from our universe. That is why it is called black: no light can escape from it. On the inside, because the light is trapped down there, things may be attractively well-lit. Even if a black hole is invisible from the outside, its gravitational presence can be palpable. If, on an interstellar voyage, you are not paying attention, you can find yourself drawn into it irrevocably, your body stretched unpleasantly into a long, thin thread. But the matter accreting into a disk surrounding the black hole would be a sight worth remembering, in the unlikely case that you survived the trip.
Thermonuclear reactions in the solar interior support the outer layers of the Sun and postpone for billions of years a catastrophic gravitational collapse. For white dwarfs, the pressure of the electrons, stripped from their nuclei, holds the star up. For neutron stars, the pressure of the neutrons staves off gravity. But for an elderly star left after supernova explosions and other impetuosities with more than several times the Sun’s mass, there are no forces known that can prevent collapse. The star shrinks incredibly, spins, reddens and disappears. A star twenty times the mass of the Sun will shrink until it is the size of greater Los Angeles; the crushing gravity becomes 1010 g’s, and the star slips through a self-generated crack in the space-time continuum and vanishes from our universe.
Black holes were first thought of by the English astonomer John Mitchell in 1783. But the idea seemed so bizarre that it was generally ignored until quite recently. Then, to the astonishment of many, including many astronomers, evidence was actually found for the existence of black holes in space. The Earth’s atmosphere is opaque to X-rays. To determine whether astronomical objects emit such short wavelengths of light, an X-ray telescope must be carried aloft. The first X-ray observatory was an admirably international effort, orbited by the United States from an Italian launch platform in the Indian Ocean off the coast of Kenya and named Uhuru, the Swahili word for “freedom.” In 1971, Uhuru discovered a remarkably bright X-ray source in the constellation of Cygnus, the Swan, flickering on and off a thousand times a second. The source, called Cygnus X-1, must therefore be very small. Whatever the reason for the flicker, information on when to turn on and off can cross Cyg X-1 no faster than the speed of light, 300,000 km/sec. Thus Cyg X-1 can be no larger than [300,000 km/sec] × [(1/1000) sec] = 300 kilometers across. Something the size of an asteroid is a brilliant, blinking source of X-rays, visible over interstellar distances. What could it possibly be? Cyg X-1 is in precisely the same place in the sky as a hot blue supergiant star, which reveals itself in visible light to have a massive close but unseen companion that gravitationally tugs it first in one direction and then in another. The companion’s mass is about ten times that of the Sun. The supergiant is an unlikely source of X-rays, and it is tempting to identify the companion inferred in visible light with the source detected in X-ray light. But an invisible object weighing ten times more than the Sun and collapsed into a volume the size of an asteroid can only be a black hole. The X-rays are plausibly generated by friction in the disk of gas and dust accreted around Cyg X-1 from its supergiant companion. Other stars called V861 Scorpii, GX339-4, SS433, and Circinus X-2 are also candidate black holes. Cassiopeia A is the remnant of a supernova whose light should have reached the Earth in the seventeenth century, when there were a fair number of astronomers. Yet no one reported the explosion. Perhaps, as I. S. Shklovskii has suggested, there is a black hole hiding there, which ate the exploding stellar core and damped the fires of the supernova. Telescopes in space are the means for checking these shards and fragments of data that may be the spoor, the trail, of the legendary black hole.
A helpful way to understand black holes is to think about the curvature of space. Consider a flat, flexible, lined two-dimensional surface, like a piece of graph paper made of rubber. If we drop a small mass, the surface is deformed or puckered. A marble rolls around the pucker in a orbit like that of a planet around the Sun. In this interpretation, which we owe to Einstein, gravity is a distortion in the fabric of space. In our example, we see two-dimensional space warped by mass into a third physical dimension. Imagine we live in a three-dimensional universe, locally distorted by matter into a fourth physical dimension that we cannot perceive directly. The greater the local mass, the more intense the local gravity, and the more severe the pucker, distortion or warp of space. In this analogy, a black hole is a kind of bottomless pit. What happens if you fall in? As seen from the outside, you would take an infinite amount of time to fall in, because all your clocks—mechanical and biological—would be perceived as having stopped. But from yourpoint of view, all your clocks would be ticking away normally. If you could somehow survive the gravitational tides and radiation flux, and (a likely assumption) if the black hole were rotating, it is just possible that you might emerge in another part of space-time—somewhere else in space, some when else in time. Such worm holes in space, a little like those in an apple, have been seriously suggested, although they have by no means been proved to exist. Might gravity tunnels provide a kind of interstellar or intergalactic subway, permitting us to travel to inaccessible places much more rapidly than we could in the ordinary way? Can black holes serve as time machines, carrying us to the remote past or the distant future? The fact that such ideas are being discussed even semi-seriously shows how surreal the universe may be.
We are, in the most profound sense, children of the Cosmos. Think of the Sun’s heat on your upturned face on a cloudless summer’s day; think how dangerous it is to gaze at the Sun directly. From 150 million kilometers away, we recognize its power. What would we feel on its seething self-luminous surface, or immersed in its heart of nuclear fire? The Sun warms us and feeds us and permits us to see. It fecundated the Earth. It is powerful beyond human experience. Birds greet the sunrise with an audible ecstasy. Even some one-celled organisms know to swim to the light. Our ancestors worshiped the Sun,* and they were far from foolish. And yet the Sun is an ordinary, even a mediocre star. If we must worship a power greater than ourselves, does it not make sense to revere the Sun and stars? Hidden within every astronomical investigation, sometimes so deeply buried that the researcher himself is unaware of its presence, lies a kernel of awe.
The Galaxy is an unexplored continent filled with exotic beings of stellar dimensions. We have made a preliminary reconnaissance and have encountered some of the inhabitants. A few of them resemble beings we know. Others are bizarre beyond our most unconstrained fantasies. But we are at the very beginning of our exploration. Past voyages of discovery suggest that many of the most interesting inhabitants of the galactic continent remain as yet unknown and unanticipated. Not far outside the Galaxy there are almost certainly planets, orbiting stars in the Magellanic Clouds and in the globular clusters that surround the Milky Way. Such worlds would offer a breathtaking view of the Galaxy rising—an enormous spiral form comprising 400 billion stellar inhabitants, with collapsing gas clouds, condensing planetary systems, luminous supergiants, stable middle-aged stars, red giants, white dwarfs, planetary nebulae, novae, supernovae, neutron stars and black holes. It would be clear from such a world, as it is beginning to be clear from ours, how our matter, our form and much of our character is determined by the deep connection between life and the Cosmos.
*It had previously been thought that the protons were uniformly distributed throughout the electron cloud, rather than being concentrated in a nucleus of positive charge at the center. The nucleus was discovered by Ernest Rutherford at Cambridge when some of the bombarding particles were bounced back in the direction from which they had come. Rutherford commented: “It was quite the most incredible event that has ever happened to me in my life. It was almost as incredible as if you fired a 15-inch [cannon] shell at a piece of tissue paper and it came back and hit you.”
*The spirit of this calculation is very old. The opening sentences of Archimedes’ The Sand Reckoner are: “There are some, King Gelon, who think that the number of the sand is infinite in multitude: and I mean by the sand not only that which exists about Syracuse and the rest of Sicily, but also that which is found in every region, whether inhabited or uninhabited. And again, there are some who, without regarding it as infinite, yet think that no number has been named which is great enough to exceed its multitude.” Archimedes then went on not only to name the number but to calculate it. Later he asked how many grains of sand would fit, side by side, into the universe that he knew. His estimate: 1063, which corresponds, by a curious coincidence, to 1083 or so atoms.
*Silicon is an atom. Silicone is a molecule, one of billions of different varieties containing silicon. Silicon and silicone have different properties and applications.
*The Earth is an exception, because our primordial hydrogen, only weakly bound by our planet’s comparatively feeble gravitational attraction, has by now largely escaped to space. Jupiter, with its more massive gravity, has retained at least much of its original complement of the lightest element.
*Stars more massive than the Sun achieve higher central temperatures and pressures in their late evolutionary stages. They are able to rise more than once from their ashes, using carbon and oxygen as fuel for synthesizing still heavier elements.
†The Aztecs foretold a time “when the Earth has become tired …, when the seed of Earth has ended.” On that day, they believed, the Sun will fall from the sky and the stars will be shaken from the heavens.
*Moslem observers noted it as well. But there is not a word about it in all the chronicles of Europe.
†Kepler published in 1606 a book called De Stella Nova, “On the New Star,” in which he wonders if a supernova is the result of some random concatenation of atoms in the heavens. He presents what he says is “… not my own opinion, but my wife’s: Yesterday, when weary with writing, I was called to supper, and a salad I had asked for was set before me. ‘It seems then,’ I said, ‘if pewter dishes, leaves of lettuce, grains of salt, drops of water, vinegar, oil and slices of eggs had been flying about in the air for all eternity, it might at last happen by chance that there would come a salad.’ ‘Yes,’ responded my lovely, ‘but not so nice as this one of mine.’ ”
*1 g is the acceleration experienced by falling objects on the Earth, almost 10 meters per second every second. A falling rock will reach a speed of 10 meters per second after one second of fall, 20 meters per second after two seconds, and so on until it strikes the ground or is slowed by friction with the air. On a world where the gravitational acceleration was much greater, falling bodies would increase their speed by correspondingly greater amounts. On a world with 10 g acceleration, a rock would travel 10 × 10 m/sec or almost 100 m/sec after the first second, 200 m/sec after the next second, and so on. A slight stumble could be fatal. The acceleration due to gravity should always be written with a lowercase g, to distinguish it from the Newtonian gravitational constant, G, which is a measure of the strength of gravity everywhere in the universe, not merely on whatever world or sun we are discussing. (The Newtonian relationship of the two quantities is F = mg = GMm/r2; g = GM/r2, where F is the gravitational force, M is the mass of the planet or star, m is the mass of the falling object, and r is the distance from the falling object to the center of the planet or star.)
*The early Sumerian pictograph for god was an asterisk, the symbol of the stars. The Aztec word for god was Teotl, and its glyph was a representation of the Sun. The heavens were called the Teoatl, the godsea, the cosmic ocean.