Cosmic Recycling: From Stellar Death to Human Life

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  • 0:02 Cosmic Recycling
  • 0:38 The Initial Atoms in…
  • 1:31 Supernovae,…
  • 4:26 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Artem Cheprasov

Artem has a doctor of veterinary medicine degree.

Did you know that you are related to the stars you see in the sky? Did you know that you're made of recycled material? This lesson will tell you how and why.

Cosmic Recycling

Do you remember your three Rs? Reading, w'r'iting, and a'r'ithmetic? What do they have to do with this lesson? Absolutely nothing. I was actually talking about the other three Rs: reduce, reuse, and recycle. Humans produce a lot of stuff that can be recycled - plastic, paper, metal, even feces, and so much more. Out in space, recycling happens automatically. No need to take the bin out every week to the curb! Our lesson will outline how cosmic recycling occurs and why you are part of that process.

The Initial Atoms in Our Universe

On Earth, life is based on carbon. We are carbon-based life. But indirectly, life actually exists primarily as a result of hydrogen and helium, the two elements that make up the vast majority of atoms in our universe. When the Big Bang occurred about 13.7 billion years ago, basically only hydrogen and helium emerged from that event. The Big Bang is a proposed explanation of the beginning of our universe, which posits that it began in an infinitely compact form that has expanded ever since. So, how in the world did we get from hydrogen and helium in the Big Bang to the atoms that make life possible? The answer is cosmic creation and recycling of stardust.

Supernovae, Nebulosity, & Stardust

In the beginning, when there were only heavens and no Earth, there were stars that burned hydrogen fuel to make helium fuel. They then burned the helium fuel to make carbon fuel; that later became neon, and that oxygen, and so on. As one fuel was burned, another fuel came to be, and other atoms were created in the star during these processes. But like our very own selves, ashes to ashes, dust to dust, the stars are no different. The stars came from interstellar gas and dust, and when they die, they become stardust.

Stars can die by violent stellar explosions called supernovae, which also produce new elements, or by releasing their outer layers of gas out into space in a less violent process. In the case of the latter, the ejected material will appear as an illuminated cloudy region of gas and dust around a star, called a nebulosity. But it doesn't really matter whether they die violently or not. The stuff that made them in the first place and the stuff they produced as they lived and died, becomes stardust. That stardust later helps make new stars, like our sun, and planets, like our Earth. That stardust is what gave your body carbon, the oxygen you breathe, the iron for your blood, selenium for your nerves, and calcium for your bones, and so on.

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