By Ava Casab (’23)
It’s late at night in the midst of spring. The air carries with it a faint scent of rain and wet earth, small puddles gathered in potholes on the roads. The sky is painted in dark shades of navy blue and black swirling together within the abyss and dotted with specks of white stretching as far as the eye can see. At first, they seem sparse, but squint and suddenly they become an infestation of the heavens, occupying almost every space visible. The sky is illuminated otherwise only by the crescent moon, a giant compared to the spots around it. From the surface of Earth, it all seems so close, but at the same time so far away. The universe is one giant mass, wrapped in the blanket of space-time, birthing stars and galaxies, and planets since the Big Bang. Yet even that remains merely a theory, an explanation for everything based on a time no human ever experienced. In reality, these stars dotted across the night sky are enormous, but from Earth, the stars look tiny, though they are anything but.
The light that reaches us from stars takes millions of light-years to reach us because of the vast distance between the Earth and almost any star. Though we are much closer to our mother star the sun, it still takes light a considerable eight minutes to bridge the gap; every bit of light from every star has traveled remarkably far and long to reach your eyes. How we see them now is how they were rather than how they are. Light travels fast, but not instantaneously, although compared to the speed of other subatomic particles it might as well be considered so. Though our eyes are now becoming gradually more polluted by artificial lights kept on past the setting of the sun, there remain places where the glare of street lamps and car headlights rarely, if ever, rear their heads. Here is where the stars and moon appear at their fullest, where every inch of emptiness suddenly shows itself as filled with glowing orbs millions of light-years away from us. Each tells a story from long ago if you are willing to hear it.
Stars make constellations of gods, animals, and everything in between too. They’re something like the clouds of a cloudless night, where if you look hard enough any shape and any object eventually appear. It’s a game of connect-the-dots played by the cosmos with the sky as the paper and the pen filled with plasma as ink. Ever-expanding, the universe adds more and more dots to the grid, subsequently making more and more shapes, expanding past what we can see into the expanses of abyss far past what our eyes can render.
Born from gases floating within the open field of the cosmos, stars begin their life burning hydrogen and converting it into helium. They continue doing this for the better part of their lives, gradually exhausting their hydrogen supply over millions of years, not through combustion but instead nuclear fusion. After they complete this first stage, the helium is then converted to carbon. The cycle continues from there, making its way through oxygen, neon, silicon, sulfur, and ending at iron. Though it gained energy through burning each of the other elements, iron, being the most stable form of nuclear matter, provides the star with no energy at all. As such, with no heat being produced to balance out the intense gravitational pull within the star, the iron core collapses in a fiery blast known as a supernova, pushing atoms of carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, and others up to iron into the abyss surrounding the explosion. The supernova is a beautiful and noble death, one done by necessity but done so in a way that captivates and brings the way for life to exist through the creation of elements like carbon and oxygen.
Iron is only produced within the cores of stars, and only certain large stars are capable of moving down the cycle long enough to reach iron. Yet iron is a requirement for human life, and without it, we would not be alive. It flows through our blood, within veins and arteries from head to toe, making our blood taste metallic to our tongue. Though seemingly common in our modern-day world, iron is created in only one place within the whole of the universe. Even if it is not the strangest particle found within us; you wouldn’t be complete without molybdenum, naganses, vanadium, and tin. Though found in small amounts, there are a multitude of elements within our body that make up little bodyweight but are vital for keeping us alive. Take, for instance, selenium, which produces two vital enzymes, a lack of which has been linked to hypertension, arthritis, some types of cancer, and anemia. Even the smallest things are capable of producing great changes.
Though we may be very small in the eyes of the universe, there is no doubt that we are something special. The elements within us are found in both large and small amounts, but they all do something for us. We carry a bit of the carcass of stars around inside ourselves every day and think little of it. The universe has filled our veins with star blood, and from all, we know the universe does everything for a reason.