cosmic abundance

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pages: 492 words: 149,259

Big Bang by Simon Singh


Albert Einstein, Albert Michelson, All science is either physics or stamp collecting, Andrew Wiles, anthropic principle, Arthur Eddington, Astronomia nova, Brownian motion, carbon-based life, Cepheid variable, Chance favours the prepared mind, Commentariolus, Copley Medal, cosmic abundance, cosmic microwave background, cosmological constant, cosmological principle, dark matter, Dava Sobel, Defenestration of Prague, discovery of penicillin, Dmitri Mendeleev, Edmond Halley, Edward Charles Pickering, Eratosthenes, Ernest Rutherford, Erwin Freundlich, Fellow of the Royal Society, fudge factor, Hans Lippershey, Harlow Shapley and Heber Curtis, Harvard Computers: women astronomers, Henri Poincaré, horn antenna, if you see hoof prints, think horses—not zebras, Index librorum prohibitorum, invention of the telescope, Isaac Newton, John von Neumann, Karl Jansky, Louis Daguerre, Louis Pasteur, luminiferous ether, Magellanic Cloud, Murray Gell-Mann, music of the spheres, Olbers’ paradox, On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres, Paul Erdős, retrograde motion, Richard Feynman, Richard Feynman, scientific mainstream, Simon Singh, Solar eclipse in 1919, Stephen Hawking, the scientific method, Thomas Kuhn: the structure of scientific revolutions, unbiased observer, V2 rocket, Wilhelm Olbers, William of Occam

These are also the two smallest and lightest elements, so astronomers were confronted by the fact that the universe consists predominantly of small atoms rather than large atoms. The extent of this bias is highlighted by the following list of cosmic abundances according to the number of atoms. These values are based on current measurements, which are not far from the values estimated in the 1930s: Element Relative abundance Hydrogen 10,000 Helium 1,000 Oxygen 6 Carbon 1 All others less than 1 In other words, hydrogen and helium together accounted for roughly 99.9% of all the atoms in the universe. The two lightest elements were extremely abundant, then the next batch of light or medium-weight atoms were much less common, and finally the heaviest atoms such as gold and platinum were rare indeed. Scientists began to wonder why there should be these extremes of cosmic abundance between the light and heavy elements. The supporters of the eternal universe model were unable to give a clear answer; their fallback position was that the universe had always contained the elements in their present proportions, and always would.

Addressing this problem would require a very different approach to any previous cosmic investigation. In the past, cosmologists had concentrated on the very large. For example, they had studied the universe using general relativity, the theory that described the long-range force of gravity between giant celestial bodies. And they used giant telescopes to look at very big galaxies that were very far away. But to tackle the problem of cosmic abundances, scientists would need new theories and new equipment to describe and probe the very, very small. Before embarking on this part of the Big Bang story, it is first necessary to take a short step back in time and examine the modern history of the atom. The rest of this section tells the story of the physicists who laid the foundations for atomic physics, whose work enabled the Big Bang supporters to investigate why the universe was full of hydrogen and helium.


pages: 257 words: 66,480

Strange New Worlds: The Search for Alien Planets and Life Beyond Our Solar System by Ray Jayawardhana


Albert Einstein, Albert Michelson, Arthur Eddington, cosmic abundance, dark matter, Edmond Halley, invention of the telescope, Isaac Newton, Kuiper Belt, Louis Pasteur, planetary scale, Pluto: dwarf planet, Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, Solar eclipse in 1919

The former may reveal biosignatures elsewhere, but we won’t know whether they indicate slime or civilization. We could then point the SETI receivers at those particular worlds for an exhaustive search for signals of artifcial origin. It may be that life is fairly common, but intelligent life is rare. On the other hand, it seems absurd, if not arrogant, to think that we are the only technological civilization in the Galaxy, given 200 billion other suns, the apparent ubiquity of planets, and the cosmic abundance of life’s ingredients. But it’s one thing to guess at probabilities and quite another to have proof. However it arrives, the frst defnitive evidence of life—even of primitive life—elsewhere will mark a revolution in science, perhaps only rivaled by Copernicus’s heliocentric theory that dislodged the Earth from the center of the universe or Darwin’s discovery of evolution that suggested all species on our planet, including humans, descended from common ancestors.


pages: 272 words: 76,089

Billions & Billions: Thoughts on Life and Death at the Brink of the Millennium by Carl Sagan


Albert Einstein, anti-communist, clean water, cosmic abundance, dark matter, demographic transition, Exxon Valdez, F. W. de Klerk, germ theory of disease, invention of agriculture, invention of radio, invention of the telegraph, invention of the telephone, Isaac Newton, Mikhail Gorbachev, pattern recognition, planetary scale, prisoner's dilemma, profit motive, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Ronald Reagan, stem cell, the scientific method, Thomas Malthus

A very cool star emits mostly in the infrared. But the Sun, in some respects an average star, puts out most of its energy in the visible. Indeed, to remarkably high precision, the human eye is most sensitive at the exact frequency in the yellow part of the spectrum at which the Sun is brightest. Might the beings of some other planet see mainly at very different frequencies? This seems to me not at all likely. Virtually all cosmically abundant gases tend to be transparent in the visible and opaque at nearby frequencies. All but the coolest stars put out much, if not most, of their energy at visible frequencies. It seems to be only a coincidence that the transparency of matter and the luminosity of stars both prefer the same narrow range of frequencies. That coincidence applies not just to our Solar System, but throughout the Universe.


pages: 370 words: 97,138

Beyond: Our Future in Space by Chris Impey


3D printing, Admiral Zheng, Albert Einstein, Alfred Russel Wallace, Berlin Wall, Buckminster Fuller, butterfly effect, California gold rush, carbon-based life, Colonization of Mars, cosmic abundance, crowdsourcing, cuban missile crisis, dark matter, discovery of DNA, Doomsday Clock, Edward Snowden, Elon Musk, Eratosthenes, Haight Ashbury, Hyperloop, I think there is a world market for maybe five computers, Isaac Newton, Jeff Bezos, John von Neumann, Kickstarter, life extension, Mahatma Gandhi, Mars Rover, mutually assured destruction, Oculus Rift, operation paperclip, out of africa, Peter H. Diamandis: Planetary Resources, phenotype, purchasing power parity, RAND corporation, Ray Kurzweil, RFID, Richard Feynman, Richard Feynman, Richard Feynman: Challenger O-ring, risk tolerance, Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, Searching for Interstellar Communications, Silicon Valley, skunkworks, Skype, Stephen Hawking, Steven Pinker, supervolcano, technological singularity, telepresence, telerobotics, the medium is the message, the scientific method, theory of mind, V2 rocket, wikimedia commons, X Prize, Yogi Berra

The minimum requirements for biology as we know it are carbon, water, and energy. Carbon is the basic building block of complex molecules, and organic chemistry depends on the versatility of the carbon bonds. Water is a good medium for fostering chemical reactions and building complexity, and it’s a major part of all terrestrial creatures—from 40 percent for beetles to 99 percent for jellyfish. Both carbon and water are cosmically abundant, so setting them as prerequisites for life isn’t very restrictive. Then there is energy. Humans are at the top of a food web reliant on the Sun, but it doesn’t follow that life needs a star. Some terrestrial microbes are sustained by heat from volcanic vents or natural radioactive decay in rocks. In both of those cases, the source of energy is geological. Habitability means something quite different for microbes and men.


pages: 337 words: 93,245

Diaspora by Greg Egan


conceptual framework, cosmic abundance, cosmic microwave background, Fermat's Last Theorem, gravity well, Jacquard loom, Jacquard loom, stem cell, telepresence, telepresence robot, Turing machine

It was either being outgassed from the planet's interior-unlikely, after twelve billion years-or it was a by-product of some form of non-equilibrium chemical process driven by the light from Voltaire. Quite possibly life. But the third surprise set Orlando's skin tingling, outweighing any drab visions of boiling lakes full of malodorous bacteria. The spectra also showed that the molecules in Swift's atmosphere contained no ordinary hydrogen, no carbon- 12, no nitrogen- 14, no oxygen-16, no sulfur-32. Not a trace of the most cosmically abundant isotopes, though they were present in the normal proportions on Voltaire's nine other planets. On Swift, there was only deuterium, carbon-13, nitrogen-1 oxygen-18, sulfur-34: the heaviest stable isotope of each element. That explained why water vapor was still present, these heavier molecules would stay closer to the surface of the planet, and when they were split the deuterium would have more of a chance to stick around and recombine.


pages: 476 words: 118,381

Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier by Neil Degrasse Tyson, Avis Lang


Albert Einstein, Arthur Eddington, asset allocation, Berlin Wall, carbon-based life, centralized clearinghouse, cosmic abundance, cosmic microwave background, dark matter, Gordon Gekko, informal economy, invention of movable type, invention of the telescope, Isaac Newton, Karl Jansky, Kuiper Belt, Louis Blériot, Mars Rover, mutually assured destruction, Pluto: dwarf planet, RAND corporation, Ronald Reagan, Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, SETI@home, space pen, stem cell, Stephen Hawking, Steve Jobs, the scientific method, trade route, V2 rocket

Given that description of the universe, every galaxy would observe all other galaxies to be receding, leading inescapably to the conclusion that we are not alone, and we are not special. And the onward momentum toward insignificance continued with a vengeance. In the 1920s and 1930s, physicists demonstrated that the fuel source in the Sun was the thermonuclear fusion of hydrogen into helium. In the 1940s and 1950s astrophysicists deduced the cosmic abundance of elements by describing in detail the sequence of thermonuclear fusion that unfolds in the cores of high-mass stars that explode at the end of their lives, enriching the universe with elements from all over the famed periodic table, the top five being hydrogen, helium, oxygen, carbon, and nitrogen. That very same sequence (except for helium, which is chemically inert) pops up when we look at the chemical constituents of human life.


pages: 661 words: 169,298

Coming of Age in the Milky Way by Timothy Ferris


Albert Einstein, Albert Michelson, Alfred Russel Wallace, anthropic principle, Arthur Eddington, Atahualpa, Cepheid variable, Chance favours the prepared mind, Commentariolus, cosmic abundance, cosmic microwave background, cosmological constant, cosmological principle, dark matter, delayed gratification, Edmond Halley, Eratosthenes, Ernest Rutherford, Gary Taubes, Harlow Shapley and Heber Curtis, Harvard Computers: women astronomers, Henri Poincaré, invention of writing, Isaac Newton, John Harrison: Longitude, Karl Jansky, Lao Tzu, Louis Pasteur, Magellanic Cloud, mandelbrot fractal, Menlo Park, Murray Gell-Mann, music of the spheres, planetary scale, retrograde motion, Richard Feynman, Richard Feynman, Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, Searching for Interstellar Communications, Solar eclipse in 1919, Stephen Hawking, Thomas Kuhn: the structure of scientific revolutions, Thomas Malthus, Wilhelm Olbers

This rang a bell: Fifty-five days was just the period that a supernova that Walter Baade studied had taken to fade away. Californium is one of the heaviest of all elements; if it were created in the intense heat of exploding stars, then surely the elements between iron and californium— which comprise,- after all, most of the periodic table—could have formed there, too. But how? Happily, nature had provided a Rosetta stone against which Hoyle and his collaborators could test their ideas, in the form of the cosmic abundance curve. This was a plot of the weight of the various atoms—some twelve hundred species of nuclei, when the known isotopes were taken into account—against their relative profusion in the universe, as determined by studying the rocks of the earth, meteorites that have fallen to earth from space, and the spectra of the sun and stars. Physicists working on the Manhattan Project and the hydrogen bomb tests that followed had grown accustomed to deciphering the chain reactions involved by studying the relative abundances of various isotopes found in the debris left behind by the explosion.