Our Cosmic Ancestors

By Dennis Mammana

January 14, 2021 5 min read

Week of Jan. 17-23, 2021

We are made of star stuff.

How often, over the years, have we encountered this phrase but never stopped to consider its true significance?

Well, now is a great time to do so.

When the universe we know came into being nearly 14 billion years ago, there existed little more than hydrogen. But look around you; today we see chemicals ranging from silicon in our computer chips to aluminum in our baking pans to chlorine in our swimming pools. So, where did all this chemistry originate?

Amazingly, it came from the stars, for these are the chemical furnaces that created everything we know — not only in the external world but also in our internal selves. The oxygen we breathe, the calcium in our bones and the carbon in our DNA were all forged deep within distant and ancient stars and blasted into space during a final act of stellar death. In fact, the very iron in our blood was the trigger for at least one supermassive star's explosion in the distant past.

After wafting through the cosmos for who knows how long, this stellar ash loaded with heavy elements merged with and enriched the already-existing hydrogen clouds, where it spurred the birth of new stars and planetary systems. And in at least one location — right here on Earth — life itself.

Are there other similar worlds throughout this vast universe where life arose from the ashes of dying stars? As we learn more about the countless stars and planets that exist out there, the answer is: almost certainly!

Yes, we — and possibly many others — are made of star stuff, a truly remarkable concept to ponder while standing under a starry night sky.

In our case, it all came together billions of years ago, but it's not difficult to find places where similar activity is occurring today. One of the most prolific such stellar nurseries lies among the brilliant stars of the winter constellation Orion, the hunter.

Look for Orion this week, standing high in the southeastern sky after dark. Two bright stars, Betelgeuse and Bellatrix, mark the hunter's shoulders. Saiph and Rigel form his knees. In his midsection lie three stars in a nearly straight line — Alnitak, Alnilam and Mintaka — that trace his belt. And below hangs his sword that appears as a smudge of light known to astronomers as M42: the Great Orion Nebula.

With even a small backyard telescope under a dark night sky, you'll see the delicate structure of this stellar nursery and the tightly packed grouping of newborn stars near its center (the "Trapezium") that illuminates the cloud from within.

It is from a similar nebula that we can trace our own origins. Exactly where that was, of course, we cannot say, but we know that the materials out of which we are made came from somewhere "out there." Perhaps even more profound is that, from this chemistry, our species has evolved the intelligence and technology to ponder this very fact!

Stand outdoors and gaze upon the stars at night, and you are viewing our cosmic ancestors. To me, this makes the starry heavens — and the phenomenon we call life — even more remarkable.

 After wafting through the cosmos, stellar ash loaded with heavy elements merged with and enriched the already-existing hydrogen clouds, where it spurred the birth of new stars and planetary systems.
After wafting through the cosmos, stellar ash loaded with heavy elements merged with and enriched the already-existing hydrogen clouds, where it spurred the birth of new stars and planetary systems.

Visit Dennis Mammana at dennismammana.com. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at creators.com.

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