Saturday, August 29, 2009

Hydrogen: Life, the Universe, and Everything

“We are called to restore within ourselves the sense of awe and delight, to respond to matter as a mystery of ever increasing connection.” - Patriarch Bartholomew

What makes life possible? For those of you who successfully avoided Chemistry classes in high school, I'll try to make it simple by talking about four (that is, mostly four) elements. But it doesn't end there. To really understand what makes life possible you need to go all the way back to the beginning of the Universe. You think I'm kidding right? Nope.

Just about everything there is is made from countless atoms. Atoms are ridiculously small. You can't see them even in electron microscopes. There are only about one hundred kinds of atoms. Each kind is called an element and it has unique characteristics that differ from all the other elements. All the atoms of a particular element say, Hydrogen, have virtually identical chemical properties. If you've seen one, you've seen em all. And the same goes for the rest of the elements. But to reiterate, each element has a set of chemical characteristics that's unique to it and it alone. So understanding those characteristics helps to understand why those particular elements are so basic to life.

Our bodies are mostly made up of four main elements. They are, in order of abundance: Oxygen, Hydrogen, Carbon and Nitrogen. I like to think of each one of these four elements as characters in a story. Each one has it's quirks, it's own special history.

Hydrogen is really special. It's in a class by itself. It's the lightest element, the simplest element, and the most abundant element in the Universe, although wait another ten billion years and that will no longer be the case. But for now it's tops. Hydrogen is also the oldest element because all the hydrogen that exists came into existence during the Big Bang – the origin of the Universe.

Let's just stop and think about that for a moment. One of the main ingredients that makes up our bodies comes from the very origins of the Universe. Every hydrogen atom in our bodies, and believe me, there's a lot of them, is fourteen billion years old. Talk about experienced. Those hydrogen atoms have seen it all. And because hydrogen is so simple – one proton and one electron – it reacts with everything. They've had relationships with every other element many times over. Been there, done that.

Hydrogen is also the main fuel for stars. Stars like the Sun are giant furnaces that burn hydrogen giving off incredible amounts of energy that we see as light. It's the Sun's radiation, caused by the fusion of hydrogen atoms that ultimately supports all life on Earth.

Hydrogen is the building block of the universe, and all the other elements are made from it, forged in the fiery furnaces of stars. A star like our Sun, which is about 4.5 billion years old and counting, is too small and doesn't burn hot enough to create many kinds of elements. That job is reserved for supergiants, stars so big that they burn up in a matter of tens of millions of years , then explode into supernovas, explosions so awesome they can light up a whole galaxy, outshining millions of other stars. It's in the unbelievably hot core of these explosions where all the heavier elements are forged, which include the other three elements that are important to life: Oxygen, Carbon, and Nitrogen.

Life, which requires these and other heavier elements, could not exist without the death of supergiant stars. Joni Mitchell was right, we are stardust. And we have to get back to the garden too, but that's another article. And so begins a theme that I will come back to again and again: even as every living thing dies, life itself comes from death.

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