Tag Archives: stars

Gould’s Belt

30.3-28.7 million years ago

Logarithmic History has had a lot of geology and biology lately, not so much astronomy. But all is not peaceful in the heavens.

Benjamin Gould is a nineteenth century astronomer who noted that a lot of bright stars in the sky — especially the bright blue stars that we know are very young — seem to fall along a ring tilted at a 20 degree angle to the Milky Way. This ring has come to be called Gould’s Belt. The Belt is an ellipse about 2400 by 1500 light years across where there has been a recent wave of star formation. Our Sun lies within the belt, somewhat off center; the center lies in the direction of the Pleiades.

The Belt began forming maybe thirty million years ago. We’re not sure what happened. A supernova may have set off a wave of star formation, but it would have to have been a huge one. Or it may be that a gas cloud or a clump of dark matter passed at an angle through our part of the Milky Way, and started stars forming with its shock wave. There are features resembling Gould’s Belt in other galaxies. In any case, the Belt is one of the really striking features of our part of the Milky Way.

Whatever its cause, no one disputes its magnificence. Gould’s belt is the most prominent starry feature in the Sun’s neighborhood, contributing most of the bright young stars nearby. Nearly two thirds of the massive stars within 2,000 light-years of the Sun belong to Gould’s belt. If I were kidnapped by an alien spaceship and taken to some remote corner of the Galaxy, Gould’s belt is what I’d look for to find my way back home.

Ken Crosswell. Gould’s Belt.

If you’re in the Northern hemisphere you can look at the sky tonight and see the Milky Way in an arc in the Western sky, stretching from North to South. West of the Milky Way you’ll see some of Gould’s belt, an arc of bright stars running north to south from the Pleiades, through Taurus and the bright stars of Orion, and Canis Major. So tonight look at the stars, and drink a toast if you want to your ape ancestors who were just on the cusp of splitting off from monkeys thirty million years ago.

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The curve of binding energy

More stardust

Looking at the abundance of different elements in the universe, we get the following:

element abundances

Note that the vertical scale is logarithmic, so there is vastly more hydrogen and helium in the universe than any other element. As noted in the last post, all the elements except hydrogen and helium were formed after the Big Bang, spewed out by supernovas and the collisions of neutron stars. In general, heavy elements are less abundant because it takes more steps to produce heavy elements than light ones. But the curve is not smooth. The lightest elements after hydrogen and helium (lithium, beryllium, boron) are relatively rare, because they get used up in the nucleosynthesis of heavier elements. And there is a saw tooth pattern in the chart, because nucleosynthesis favors atoms with even numbers of protons. So we get lots of oxygen, magnesium, silicon, and iron, the main constituents of our planet. Lots of carbon too. Finally, iron (Fe) is more than 1000 times more abundant than might be expected based on a smooth curve. Iron nuclei are especially stable because binding energy, the energy that would be required to take the nucleus apart into its constituent protons and neutrons, reaches a maximum with iron. Here’s the famous curve of curve of binding energy (nucleons are protons and neutrons):

curve of binding energy

An implication of this curve is that if you can split a really heavy nucleus, of Uranium-235 say, into smaller nuclei (but still heavier than iron), you will release energy equal to the vertical difference between U-235 and its lighter fission products (not shown) on the vertical scale. This is lots of energy, way more than you get from breaking or forming molecular bonds in ordinary chemical reactions. And if you can fuse two light nuclei, of hydrogen say, into a larger nucleus, you can get even more energy. When we split uranium, we are recovering some of the energy that a star put into synthesizing elements heavier than iron, before or as it went supernova. When we fuse hydrogen, we are extracting energy from the Big Bang that no star got around to releasing.

Starting to figure this all out was part of a scientific revolution that made physics in 1950 look very different from physics in 1900. The new physics resolved a paradox in the study of prehistory. Geologists were pretty confident, based on rates of sedimentation, that the Earth had supported complex life for hundreds of millions of years. But physicists couldn’t see how the sun could have kept shining for so long. The geologists were right about deep time; it took new physics to understand that the sun got its energy from fusing hydrogen to helium (via some intermediate steps).

As the scientific revolution in atomic physics was picking up steam, it was natural to assume that it would be followed by a revolution in technology. After all, earlier scientific revolutions in the understanding of masses and gases, atoms and molecules, and electrons and electromagnetism, had been followed by momentous innovations in technology: the steam engine, artificial fertilizers, electrification, radio, to name just a few. But in some ways, the Atomic Age hasn’t lived up to early expectations. The atom bomb brought an earlier end to the Second World War, but didn’t change winners and losers. The bomb was never used again in war, and it’s a matter for debate how much the atom bomb and the hydrogen bomb changed the course of the Cold War. Nuclear energy now generates a modest 11% of the world’s electricity (although this number had better go up in the future if we’re serious about curbing carbon dioxide emissions). And a lot of ambitious early proposals for harnessing the atom never got anywhere. Project Plowshare envisioned using nuclear explosions for enormous civil engineering projects, digging new caves, canals, and harbors. Even more audacious was Project Orion, which developed plans for a rocket propelled by nuclear explosions. Some versions of Orion could have carried scores of people and enormous payloads throughout the solar system. Freeman Dyson, a physicist who worked on the project, said “Our motto was ‘Mars by 1965, Saturn by 1970.’”

On the purely technical side these plans were feasible. There were concerns about fallout, but the problems were not insurmountable. Nevertheless both Plowshare and Orion were cancelled. Dyson said “… this is the first time in modern history that a major expansion of human technology has been suppressed for political reasons.” The history of the Atomic Age  and its missed opportunities is a refutation of pure technological determinism. How or even whether a new technology is exploited depends on social institutions, politics, and cultural values.

We are stardust

10.4-9.86 billion years ago

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.

Carl Sagan (h/t to commenter remanandhra)

There’s a long gap between the origin of the universe, the first stars, and early galaxies, and the origin of our Solar System and our planet Earth. If we were using a linear scale for our calendar, the Solar System would get started in September. Even on our logarithmic scale, Sun and Earth wait until late January. A spiral galaxy like the Milky Way is an efficient machine for turning dust into stars over many billions of years. But the earliest stars it produces are poor in “metals” (to an astronomer, anything heavier than helium is a metal). It takes generations of exploding stars producing heavier elements and ejecting them into space before a star like the Sun — 2% metal – can form.

And just last year, a spectacular discovery provided support for another mechanism of heavy element formation. Astronomers for the first time detected gravitational waves from the collision of two neutron stars, 300 million light-years away. Such collisions may be responsible for the formation of some of the heaviest atoms around, gold and silver in particular. So your gold ring may be not just garden-variety supernova stardust, but the relic of colliding neutron stars.

Alchemists thought they could change one element into another – lead into gold, say. But it takes more extreme conditions than in any chemistry lab to transmute elements. The heart of a star makes heavy elements out of hydrogen and helium; it takes a supernova to make elements heavier than iron. So it’s literally true, not just hippy poetry, that “we are stardust” (at least the part of us that isn’t hydrogen).

In the beginning

13.80 – 13.05 Gya (billion years ago)

Knowing what happened at the very beginning of the Universe is speculative. It depends on what the theory of quantum gravity looks like, which is up in the air. The theory of inflation (insanely fast growth before 10-32 seconds , after which the universe settled down to merely explosive growth with the Big Bang) may explain why the universe is flat, uniform, and not very lumpy. In 2014, it looked like we had direct evidence for gravity waves generated by inflation, going back just 10 sec from the beginning of the universe. But the jury is still out on this.

Later developments are more generally agreed on, although some of the exact times may need revision in the future. Strikingly, a lot of familiar astronomical objects, including stars and galaxies, are already around within 100’s of million of years. However early stars are short on metals (to astronomers, anything heavier than helium counts as a metal), and the early Milky Way is dispersed and fuzzy, not the barred spiral galaxy we know today.

Gould’s Belt

30.3-28.7 million years ago

Logarithmic History has had a lot of geology and biology lately, not so much astronomy. But all is not peaceful in the heavens.

Benjamin Gould is a nineteenth century astronomer who noted that a lot of bright stars in the sky — especially the bright blue stars that we know are very young — seem to fall along a ring tilted at a 20 degree angle to the Milky Way. This ring has come to be called Gould’s Belt. The Belt is an ellipse about 2400 by 1500 light years across where there has been a recent wave of star formation. Our Sun lies within the belt, somewhat off center; the center lies in the direction of the Pleiades.

The Belt began forming maybe thirty million years ago. We’re not sure what happened. A supernova may have set off star formation, but it would have to have been a huge one. Or it may be that a gas cloud or a clump of dark matter passed at an angle through our part of the Milky Way, and started stars forming with its shock wave. There are features resembling Gould’s Belt in other galaxies. In any case, the Belt is one of the really striking features of our part of the Milky Way.

Whatever its cause, no one disputes its magnificence. Gould’s belt is the most prominent starry feature in the Sun’s neighborhood, contributing most of the bright young stars nearby. Nearly two thirds of the massive stars within 2,000 light-years of the Sun belong to Gould’s belt. If I were kidnapped by an alien spaceship and taken to some remote corner of the Galaxy, Gould’s belt is what I’d look for to find my way back home.

Ken Crosswell. Gould’s Belt.

If you’re in the Northern hemisphere you can look at the sky tonight and see the Milky Way in an arc in the Western sky, stretching from North to South. West of the Milky Way you’ll see some of Gould’s belt, an arc of bright stars running north to south from the Pleiades, through Taurus and the bright stars of Orion, and Canis Major. So tonight look at the stars, and drink a toast if you want to your ape ancestors who were just on the cusp of splitting off from monkeys thirty million years ago.

We are stardust

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.

Carl Sagan (h/t to commenter remanandhra)

There’s a long gap between the origin of the universe, the first stars, and early galaxies, and the origin of our Solar System and our planet Earth. If we were using a linear scale for our calendar, the Solar System would get started in September. Even on our logarithmic scale, Sun and Earth wait until late January. A spiral galaxy like the Milky Way is an efficient machine for turning dust into stars over many billions of years. But the earliest stars it produces are poor in “metals” (to an astronomer, anything heavier than helium is a metal). It takes generations of exploding stars producing heavier elements and ejecting them into space before a star like the Sun — 2% metal – can form.

Alchemists thought they could change one element into another – lead into gold, say. But it takes more extreme conditions than in any chemistry lab to transmute elements. The heart of a star makes heavy elements out of hydrogen and helium; it takes a supernova to make elements heavier than iron. So it’s literally true, not just hippy poetry, that “we are stardust” (at least the part of us that isn’t hydrogen).

Gould’s Belt

Logarithmic History has had a lot of geology and biology lately, not so much astronomy. But all is not peaceful in the heavens.

Benjamin Gould is a nineteenth century astronomer who noted that a lot of bright stars in the sky — especially the bright blue stars that we know are very young — seem to fall along a ring tilted at a 20 degree angle to the Milky Way. This ring has come to be called Gould’s Belt. The Belt is an ellipse about 2400 by 1500 light years across where there has been a recent wave of star formation. Our Sun lies within the belt, somewhat off center; the center lies in the direction of the Pleiades.

The Belt began forming maybe thirty million years ago. We’re not sure what happened. A supernova may have set off star formation, but it would have to have been a huge one. Or it may be that a gas cloud or a clump of dark matter passed at an angle through our part of the Milky Way, and started stars forming with its shock wave. There are features resembling Gould’s Belt in other galaxies. In any case, the Belt is one of the really striking features of our part of the Milky Way.

Whatever its cause, no one disputes its magnificence. Gould’s belt is the most prominent starry feature in the Sun’s neighborhood, contributing most of the bright young stars nearby. Nearly two thirds of the massive stars within 2,000 light-years of the Sun belong to Gould’s belt. If I were kidnapped by an alien spaceship and taken to some remote corner of the Galaxy, Gould’s belt is what I’d look for to find my way back home.

Ken Crosswell. Gould’s Belt.

If you’re in the Northern hemisphere and look west just after sundown tonight, you’ll see Mercury low in the sky in the constellation Taurus. Gould’s Belt runs through Taurus, and through the bright stars of Perseus, Orion, and Canis Major. So tonight look at the stars, and drink a toast if you want to your ape ancestors who were just on the cusp of splitting off from monkeys thirty million years ago.