[Marxism] Our Cosmic Selves

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sun Apr 5 09:21:20 MDT 2015


NY Times, Apr. 5 2015
Our Cosmic Selves
By RAY JAYAWARDHANA

JONI MITCHELL beat Carl Sagan to the punch. She sang “we are stardust, 
billion-year-old carbon” in her 1970 song “Woodstock.” That was three 
years before Mr. Sagan wrote about humans’ being made of “star-stuff” in 
his book “The Cosmic Connection” — a point he would later convey to a 
far larger audience in his 1980 television series, “Cosmos.”

By now, “stardust” and “star-stuff” have nearly turned cliché. But that 
does not make the reality behind those words any less profound or 
magical: The iron in our blood, the calcium in our bones and the oxygen 
we breathe are the physical remains — ashes, if you will — of stars that 
lived and died long ago.

That discovery is relatively recent. Four astrophysicists developed the 
idea in a landmark paper published in 1957. They argued that almost all 
the elements in the periodic table were cooked up over time through 
nuclear reactions inside stars — rather than in the first instants of 
the Big Bang, as previously thought. The stuff of life, in other words, 
arose in places and times somewhat more accessible to our telescopic 
investigations.

Since most of us spend our lives confined to a narrow strip near Earth’s 
surface, we tend to think of the cosmos as a lofty, empyrean realm far 
beyond our reach and relevance. We forget that only a thin sliver of 
atmosphere separates us from the rest of the universe.

But science continues to show just how intimately connected life on 
Earth is to extraterrestrial processes. In particular, several recent 
findings have further illuminated the cosmic origins of life’s key 
ingredients.

Take the element phosphorus, for example. It is a critical constituent 
of DNA, as well as of our cells, teeth and bones. Astronomers have long 
struggled to trace its buildup through cosmic history, because the 
imprint of phosphorus is difficult to discern in old, cool stars in the 
outskirts of our galaxy. (Some of these stellar “time capsules” contain 
the ashes of their forebears, the very first generation of stars that 
formed near the dawn of time.)

But in a paper published in December in The Astrophysical Journal 
Letters, a research team reported that it had measured the abundance of 
phosphorus in 13 such stars, using data taken with the Hubble Space 
Telescope. Their findings highlight the dominant role of so-called 
hypernovae, explosions even more energetic than supernovae that spell 
the demise of massive stars, in making the elements essential for life.

More than just atoms were produced in the celestial realm. Growing 
evidence suggests that interstellar space was also where atoms united to 
make some molecules pertinent for life. A study published last fall in 
Science, for example, used computer simulations to establish the 
provenance of Earth’s water. Its surprising verdict: Up to half the 
water on our planet is older than the solar system itself. Ancient water 
molecules assembled in the chilly confines of a gigantic gas cloud. That 
cloud spawned our sun and the planets that orbit it — and somehow those 
ancient water molecules survived the perils of the planetary birth 
process to end up in our oceans and, presumably, our bodies.

Such interstellar clouds may have been well suited for brewing a 
multitude of molecules. Last fall, in another study published in 
Science, a research team reported the first discovery in a stellar 
nursery of a carbon-bearing molecule with a “branched” structure. The 
detection of this molecule, the researchers wrote, “bodes well” for the 
presence in interstellar space of amino acids, for which a branched 
structure is a defining feature. (The researchers made use of a vast, 
partially operational network of radio dishes being erected on a 
high-altitude plateau in northern Chile, whose location makes it easier 
for radio emissions to reach us from the coldest bits of the galaxy, 
where the alchemy of life is presumed to have begun.)

Astrochemists are excited by this discovery because amino acids, which 
have been found already in some meteorites, form the basis of proteins. 
Meanwhile, last month, NASA scientists reported the creation of key DNA 
components in a laboratory experiment that simulated the space 
environment. Together, these findings raise the odds that life’s 
building blocks were concocted in space and blended into the material 
that formed Earth and its planetary siblings.

Amid the material comforts and the relentless distractions of modern 
life, the universe at large may appear remote, intangible and 
irrelevant, especially to those of us who are city dwellers. But the 
next time you catch a glimpse of the Milky Way in its true glory, from a 
dark outpost far from city lights, think of those countless stars as 
nuclear factories and the starless hazy patches as molecular breweries. 
It is not much of a stretch to imagine the inchoate seeds of life 
emerging in the distance.

Ray Jayawardhana, a professor of physics and astronomy at York 
University in Toronto, is the author of “Neutrino Hunters: The Thrilling 
Chase for a Ghostly Particle to Unlock the Secrets of the Universe.”




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