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There is magic in a sunset.

We’ve always known it. We watch. We sing. We dance. We try to understand. And we hope that the Sun will return.

I live in Central Ohio. It’s January. If that isn’t depressing enough, the local paper ran an article in the Sunday travel section about just about my favorite place in the world, the Gulf Coast of Florida. I had to read it, just as you have to touch that sore spot in your mouth with your tongue. You just can’t help yourself.

The writer tells of a drum band and a dancer on Casey Key, celebrating the setting Sun with music and dance. Take a look, and you’ll see why they were celebrating.

The author describes musicians sitting in the sand, “drums wedged between their legs. In the center of the circle, a shaman dressed in a white sleeveless shirt and a fancy topper blessed the circle with two feathers from a great blue heron. A belly dancer swung her hips and snaked her arms toward the reddening sky.”

What is this but a question, thrown toward the setting Sun? What are you? Why do you set each evening, and return each morn? From where does your incredible power arise – the power to conquer death, to melt the winter and bring on the spring, to come again, day after day after day? How long have you been, and how long will you be? Were you, like me, born, and will you, like me, someday die?

This same scene must have played out millions of times on beaches all over the world in the hundred or so millennia since humans first found themselves awake and aware in this wondrous and surprising universe. I believe I am a member of the luckiest generation of all those millennia, because we can answer some of the questions. Far from destroying the magic, the answers open new wonders never before dreamed and reveal mysteries never before imagined.

The Sun is a star, only close up. The stars are Suns, only very far away. Within the Sun an element called hydrogen smashes together, 1 + 1 + 1 + 1, the ancient rhythm, to create helium, and with it energy, prodigious energy, energy enough to bring the Earth to life. It does so because a single helium atom, plus the other particles produced in the collision, weigh a tiny bit less than the four original hydrogens. That tiny bit of mass turns into enormous amounts of energy. And there was light. And it was good.

But the light will not last forever. Billions of years from now, when its hydrogen runs low, our Sun will swell and cool, a red giant filling the inner solar system with its girth. Then helium will come together to form carbon, the same carbon of which you are made. When the Sun finally dies, it will spray this carbon and other elements out from itself, filling the universe with its seed. In the same way, billions of years ago, through violent death throes and quiet fadeaways, other stars filled the universe with the carbon and other elements that would one day form your very own cells. Ancient stars live within you.

And still the mystery. Why should helium weigh a little less than four hydrogens? Why should carbon form from helium (it almost doesn’t, and its formation is one of the most amazing stories the universe has to tell)? Why should stars exist at all? Energy only passes through stars – it is not created by them. Thirteen billion years ago, the cosmic fireball filled the universe with usable energy – why? What caused this first cause? What came before? Was there a before?

And what is all this, too, but a question thrown at the universe. What are you? And what are we who ask?

Science is a song and a dance. I do not wish to replace the shaman and the belly dancer. I wish to add to their questions with my own. I wish for science to take its rightful place alongside music, alongside art, alongside dance and love and life and rhythm, as a way for us to celebrate the Sun.

Someday I will be there. And I will join the belly dancers and the drummers. And I will tell the story science tells.

In the meantime, I’ll watch the sunset.

 

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You’ve heard of the Peter principle? It’s the idea that in every organization workers are promoted until they achieve a job they can’t do. Then they stay there.

My job involves a lot of meetings. I’m not very good at meetings. My mind wanders to topics not remotely related to the meeting.

But I think I am pretty good at teaching. Today I got a rare chance to teach. I was stationed at a cart with a cloud chamber. A group of fifth graders came over, three girls, one boy, and their adult chaperone. We talked about atoms, how amazingly small they are, how separating water into hydrogen and oxygen (always exactly 2 hydrogens for 1 oxygen) gives a clue about the reality of atoms. Then we looked at the cloud chamber.

Inside the cloud chamber is a lantern mantle coated in thorium. When the thorium decays, it releases an alpha particle. Several more alpha and beta decays transmute the thorium finally into lead. The ethanol in the atmosphere forms a cloud behind the decay particles, showing their paths with white, wispy lines.

Here’s a great movie of a cloud chamber in action.

As my learners watched the paths of these bits of exploded atoms, we talked about what was happening and why. Why did one atom decay today, in this moment, after waiting silently for billions of years? Why did the ethanol form those wispy clouds? What happened to the particles afterwards?

I talked to my learners about helium, about how virtually all the helium on Earth comes from radioactive decay, and how every time they hold a helium balloon in their hands what they’re really holding are the leftover bits of exploded radioactive atoms.

Then we talked about where thorium comes from, how, billions of years ago, a giant star exploded, and in the explosion energy was stored in a new kind of atom, an atom called thorium. We talked about how that thorium atom drifted in space for maybe billions of years, until it finally found itself swept up in the formation of a young planet we would one day call Earth. We talked about how when that atom exploded it released, finally, that stored-up star energy, captured there so many years ago.

The boy asked, “Don’t exploding stars form nebulae?”

“That’s right,” I said, “Those clouds around ancient stars contain all the elements the star forms in its lifetime, including the elements that make up you.”

And now I looked one of the girls in the group, the quietest one, directly in the eyes and said, “The very atoms that make up you were born billions of years ago in a giant star. You are one of the things stars can make.” And the girl smiled.

And that’s why I do what I do.

My first book, called The Turtle and the Universe, was published by Prometheus Books in July 2008. You can read about it by clicking on the link above.
My second book, Atoms and Eve, is available as an e-book at Barnes and Noble. Click the link above. You can download the free nook e-reader by clicking the link below.
January 2010
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A blog by Stephen Whitt

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