From time to time, I’m going to refer to “sub-atomic particles”, “atoms” and such. Please, remain calm, Keep in mind, There Are No Such Objects. I am referring to collections of energy that behave like objects. I am very tired, and this device saves the typing of numerous letters. Thank you for your indulgence.
When last we saw it, the Universe, packed solid with this sub-atomic Stuff, all whirling at high speeds and saturated with various Energies, immediately flew off in all directions.
Practically all the sub-atomic Stuff arranged itself as hydrogen atoms, consisting of one electron twirling in a shell around one proton (comprised of three quarks), all of which also began whirling in their own pinwheels; and most of the hydrogen atoms arranged themselves as parts of hydrogen molecules: two electrons twirling around two protons, each atom doing its own twirling as needed. Great clouds of hydrogen formed. These clouds condensed, pulled together by gravity. Condensing heated the clouds. They spun faster and got even hotter, because they had been pulled together; and at last they became stars. There were no planets yet, though. All the elements other than hydrogen are made in stars. So before there could be iron, or zinc, hell, before there could be dirt, the first stars had to go through their entire lifecycles.
All this took billions of years. Eventually, some stars made enough elements besides heliun-calcium, aluminum, magnesium, potassium, carbon, iron and (most precious) oxygen – that these elements could combine and be included in the dust in the clouds that formed and condensed and swirled into stars. Then, there were planets, and rain and all the rest. It may seem I’m getting ahead of myself here, but I’m not.
This is the very paragraph we were rushing off to.
The way stars end affects the universe around them critically. A star’s ability to continue fusion depends on its size first, then composition. Once a small star has fused all the hydrogen in its core into helium, the process stops. The star has not enough mass to sustain the heat to fuse the hydrogen remaining in its outer layers. The star cools and collapses; it becomes a red dwarf, and fades from the stellar scene, muttering to itself. It’s usually bitching because it knows that, with only slightly more hydrogen it could have created … but we all think that, at least at first. And we all get over it eventually.
With a medium-sized star, say, the Sun, once the hydrogen in its core has all fused into helium there in fact is enough mass and gravity to compress the helium core, raising the temperature and upping the stakes. The outer layers of the star expand; it becomes a red giant. The hydrogen in those outer layers is fused into helium, and the helium in the core is fused into carbon and oxygen.
Helium fusion gives off greater energy than did hydrogen, but it is more erratic. Helium flashes now blow parts of the giant’s outer layers into the space around the star, forming a planetary nebula around the star. It’s all very lovely and gracious as long as it lasts. But when it goes, it’s gone. All that’s left is a white dwarf about the size of Earth, cooling and dying and fuming off a whole lot of carbon and oxygen.
Last, there’s stars that begin really huge and then get bigger. Much bigger. Their enormity results in such gravitational pressure in their cores that when all the hydrogen in their cores is fused into helium it does not matter. These massive ovens go right ahead, making neon, sulphur, magnesium, silicon, phosphorous and, last, iron. Iron is the last thing any star makes. Its fusion absorbs energy. The star’s fusion engine stops within minutes. The star then proceeds consuming itself from the inside out. The hydrogen fusion in the outer layers can no longer countermand the massive gravity, and the star collapses.
But the core of the star is already iron. It can’t collapse. In fact, it actually reflects the implosion outward. Et voila: le Supernova!
The resulting shockwaves are so powerful, they fuse particles remaining in the outer shells into elements heavier than iron. Gold, silver, copper, lead, the radioactive elements. That’s why they’re so rare.(lead? copper??? More later on this, you can bet the house on it.)
What’s left behind is a neutron star, a ball of starAsh with the mass of a Sun-and-a-Half and a diameter of about forty city blocks.
Says here, too, that if the star’s mass to begin with is greater than five times the Sun’s, nothing can stop the implosion, no iron, no nothing … and, that’s where black holes come from.[i] Again, we’ll be back, mebbe have a little look-see into this part of the myth and see if there’s Another Way to Put It. There may be.
It’s things like this that makes this the Current, Modern Myth Of How It All Began. Even though there’s a great deal of Math intricately woven within it, just the same, it’s all imaginary. Which doesn’t make it untrue.
The math that supports all this is no more mysterious than algebra. In fact, it is algebra. And buried within the algebra (not too deep, either) is the small case letter i, which represents the square root of -1. i stands for imaginary.
I will now spend one paragraph explaining this. If you’re familiar with it, please skip to the following paragraph. If you’re not, please remain calm. There is no math in this explanation, just explanation.
Squares are the product of a number multiplied by itself. Example: 2 x 2 = 4. The product of a negative number multiplied by itself is positive. Example: -2 x -2 = 4. A negative number is the product of a positive number times a negative number. Example: 2 x -2 =-4. -4 is neither 2×2 nor -2 x-2. The square root of a positive number can be either positive or negative. Example: sqRt(4)=2, sqRt(4)=-2. The square root of a negative number is expressed as follows: sqRt(-4) = 2 x i.
The value of i is real. The problem is, we can’t calculate it in our current arithmetic. So we must use the placeholder i and imagine it.
You learn the entire math this sort of thing takes while in high school – and I advise you to. If you want to work even upstairs at Wal-Mart, let alone for anyone other than Some Great Warehouse Commodity Corporation. Whereas your fathers could get by with only the reasoning skills demanded by geometry, it’ll take second year algebra to keep you out of the stockroom. The world is getting more complex. Live it, or live with it.
[i] – Here’s a school exercise for extra credit: the mass of the earth is estimated to be 5.972E24 kg. What are the twelve compounds tha make up 99.4% of that? For super extra credit, how many centuries would it take one star to make all the elements required for the above?