08 December 2005

Everything else is metal

When astronomers turn their telescopes to the sky, we see that the universe is composed of some 98% Hydrogen. A bit under another 2% of the atoms out there are Helium, and then there's a smidgeon of everything else. (If you google this, your numbers may vary, but it's at least 90%.) That's if we count the particles, count how many atoms of each element there are.

If we instead weighed (technically, found the mass of) everything in the universe, we'd come up with around 75% of the universe is Hydrogen and 23% is Helium. And if you get that distinction, between number density (the former) and mass density (the latter, the normal concept of density), you are now at the same level as I was after a year of grad school.

Either counting by number (more common) or by mass, Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe, with Helium trailing far behind but making up most of the difference. H and He are the most important elements in the universe, whether we're in stars or giant gas clouds. Because of this, astronomers have a number of jokes about the chemicals in the universe.

  • "The universe is made of Hydrogen, Helium, and everything else."

  • "In astronomy there are three elements. We call Hydrogen X, Helium is Y, and everything else is Z."

  • "If it's not Hydrogen or Helium, it's metal."

I'm not kidding you, we say these. We learn them in class!

Technically, cosmologists also worry about Lithium and Berylium, as mathematical and computer models can use their abundance today to determine details of how the Big Bang occured, but any other elements were created since the Big Bang. In the cores of stars of various mass fusion turns Hydrogen into everything upto and including Iron (our Sun will only get as far as Carbon though). Everything heavier than Iron was created in a supernova, as a massive star violently exploded. Our Sun will slowly expand as a Red Giant and gently shrug off its outer layers in a Planetary Nebula, but we're too small to supernova. Either way, the new chemicals created in a star are then scattered through out the rest of the nearby universe and eventually become part of new stars, new planets, and life as we know it.


utenzi said...

In biology we have better jokes, to wit:

How do you make a "hormone"?

Don't pay her.

Delmonti said...

does that mean the gold in my teeth came from a Supernova?

cube said...

How about,

If you're not part of the solution, you're part of the precipitate ;-)

zandperl said...

Correct! The gold in your teeth and the iron in your red blood cells came from a supernova. The carbon that makes up most of the solids of your body came from stars like our own dying in red giants and planetary nebulae OR from supernovae. The oxygen in all the water in the world came from stars more massive than our own, and the star could've died as a red giant or a supernova. The nickel and iron that make up the core of the Earth came from supernovae as well.