Supernova: the stuff of star-stuff

We start this in a perverse sort of way considering we are dealing with a supernova. We drop straight into the world of fiction, with an excerpt from ‘Wessex Tales’ ~ ‘Musing on Damory Oak’:

‘In the thirteenth year of King Canute (1029), the year in which the acorn thrust its root down in moist earth to discover life and home, a Saxon couple dwelling no more than a blackbird’s call away gave birth to a son whom they christened Edwin. While the little oak tree fed upon the earth, aspiring to glory in the sky, little Edwin grew up strong, living to till the land of his fathers.

crab nebula

The Crab Nebula, its light first seen on Earth in 1054. ‘The Crab Nebula spans about 10 light-years.’ Image Credit: NASA, ESA, J. Hester, A. Loll (ASU)

One day, in the third year of Edward the Confessor, in Edwin and the oak tree’s thirteenth year (1054), Edwin and his family saw a sight so terrible his mother nigh fell dead for fear, and many a human soul was never sane again. In high summer of that year a light burned in the sky so brightly that a body could discern each blade of grass by night without a moon! Two months the angels fought in heaven, so one priest said; others, that this must be the Day of Judgement at the Second Coming, for was this not the Star that hovered over Bethlehem a thousand years before? A full two years this awful brightness hovered over England, Edwin, and the oak, provoking piety, madness and despair. Two full years when folk forgot how dark was dark, how black was night; this strange angel in the sky brought out the worst of fears. And then it waned, and merciful darkness came again, and with it sanity.* At last the sainted moon reclaimed her usurped sky. And Edwin? Edwin grew to manhood in the shade-reach of our sapling oak.’

(*Footnote: Light from the explosion of the Crab supernova reached Earth in July, 1054, making nights light enough to read by, for those who could, for two months. The explosion was a prominent feature in the night sky for two years. Its presence is recorded in records kept by many cultures, notably the Chinese.)

Supernova shockwave seen with visible light for first time

By Tim Radford | April 6 2016 | in The Guardian

‘Two massive explosions, 2.2 and 1.5 million years ago, could have been as close as 300 light years distant, and would have been visible from Earth.

Supernova: exploding star's shockwave

Animation of the an exploding star’s shockwave. Video: YouTube/NASA Ames/ STScI/G.Bacon

Radioactive shrapnel from one of the biggest blasts in the universe—a supernova explosion —has been identified in the ocean crust. The evidence is a scatter of a rare isotope of iron that could only have come from an exploding star.

Scientists think the explosions—they believe there must have been at least two—could have been as close as 300 light years distant, and would have been visible from Earth, and perhaps as bright as the moon.

They report in the journal Nature that samples of sediment drilled over decades by oceanographers revealed concentrations of the telltale isotope iron-60 in the cores, all dating from between 3.2 and 1.7 million years ago.

Supernovae, along with supermassive volcanic eruptions, cometary collisions and catastrophic climate change – have been lined up as potential suspects in some of the five great extinctions that punctuate the history of life on Earth. But neither of the two supernovae explosions would have been anywhere near the “kill zone”: only a blast within 30 light years could deliver dangerous levels of radiation that would certainly affect life on Earth.

Supernova explosion gives glimpse of how ingredients for life are created

supernova blast yielding iron-60 to Earth

An illustration of the first supernova blast which resulted in Iron-60 landing on Earth approximately 2.3 million years ago. Credit: Michael Schulreich

Scientists think shock breakouts—a shockwave and flash of light that rocks a massive star just before it explodes into a “supernova”—allow the stars to finally explode, spewing out all the heavy atoms that exist in the universe. But actually watching that process occur and seeing how it progresses has proved elusive, leaving scientists guessing about exactly how it happens. …

Steve Howell, project scientist for Nasa’s Kepler and K2 missions, said: “All heavy elements in the universe come from supernova explosions. For example, all the silver, nickel and copper in the earth and even in our bodies came from the explosive death throes of stars. Life exists because of supernovae.” That’s not quite as poetic as the way US astronomer Carl Sagan famously put it:

 “The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of star-stuff.” enlarges on this passage.

An earlier researcher reached a similar conclusion. Here is an excerpt from my book, Let there be Life, pp. 169-170. The book’s title in the U.K. is The Becoming.

“Scientists now realise that the chemical elements of which we are made were once forged in the nuclear fusion-fires of long-dead stars. Musing along those lines, Jesuit astronomer William Stoeger of the Vatican Observatory Research Group, comments that modern cosmology shows how humans are woven into the skein of the cosmic network.’

‘Woven into the skein of the cosmic network.’ We are indeed the stuff of star-stuff.


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