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A Corner of My Mind: The Stuff of Stars

“Destroyer and preserver, hear, oh, hear!”

The great star reaches the end of its life, but it doesn’t go out with a whimper. It goes out with a bang heard round the Milky Way Galaxy, had the galaxy ears to listen.

Drawn inward by gravity, unable to resist with its energy gone, the outer layer of the massive star collapses inward. Gigantic forces may expel the mass of the star out into the galaxy at speeds up to ten thousands kilometers per second. Such is the death of a colossus.

But the big star’s death is really a beginning, “... which are often difficult,” as one Russian said. Often, it leaves behind a child in the form of a new star while it retreats and morphs into a white dwarf, or a neutron star, or that most enigmatic galactic event of all, a black hole. There are many black holes roaming our galaxy. Let’s hope they don’t roam into our solar system like evil spirits of the dead and rip apart the fabric of our planets’ balanced orbits just for the hell of it. Rest in peace, you bowls of unimaginable gravity that gulp stars and suck in light itself. Only the creator knows what mysterious twists of physical laws rule within the deeps of a black hole where space and time cease to exist. They might be roads to white holes — another galaxy. Scientists talk of singularities within black holes, and confess that a “singularity” really means that they haven’t a clue. Had Star Trek or Star Wars, physicist Stephen Hawking’s favorite films, ever imagined such natural monsters, they wouldn’t have had to resort to Death Stars or cosmic machines that eat planets to scare their audiences.

Fortunately or unfortunately, supernovas occur approximately once every fifty years in our galaxy. The Milky Way produces on the average of one star per year.

Like newly hatched salmon that feed on the flesh of their dead parents, the new stars, bathed in nebulas of chemicals and heavy metals, gather those materials, forged in the hot furnace of their progenitors’ death throes, and light the galaxy with hope of new life.

“We are all made up of bits of star stuff, material that was made in long-ago stars that have long since died — and also from material that was created in the Big Bang more than 13.7 billion years ago. So, in a sense, while we may not yet have been to space in our present bodies, everything IN our bodies came from space and will go back there some day. The planetary Nebula NGC 2818 is blowing atoms of chemical elements to space; one day they may help form new stars, planets, and perhaps life itself.” — Carolyn Collins Peterson, TheSpacewriter.

And so, we are truly the stuff of stars, and not just as a metaphor. Life and the physical universe are more interconnected than we ever knew before science showed us who we are. We look up at the night sky and dream of forms of life we can scarcely imagine. Hawking speculates that aliens may be doing the same thing, somewhere, out there.

“I maintain there is much more wonder in science than in pseudoscience.” — Carl Sagan 1934 -1996)

After Carl Sagan passed away, I found out that we grew up about two miles apart in Brooklyn, though he was older than I am. Oh, the conversations we might’ve had. He could have told me, as children, that there are hundreds and hundreds of stars out there, before he became a scientist and upgraded to billions and billions.

So much for lost opportunities.


Ode to the West Wind: Percy Bysshe Shelley (4 August 1792 8 July 1822).


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