Dinner Rolls And Star Dust

“MAH-ahm! Uncle Sy’s here! Hi, Uncle Sy, dinner’s almost ready. I’ve saved up some questions for you”

“Hi, Teena, let’s have—”

“Now Teena, we said we’d hold the questions until after the meal. Hi, Sy.”

“Hi, Sis. Smells wonderful. One of Mom’s recipes?”

“Nope, I’m experimenting. Mom’s pasta sauce, though. You toss the salad and we’ll dig in.”

<later> “Wow. Sis, that lasagna was amazing. Five different meats, I think, and four different cheeses? Every mouthful was a new experience. A meal that Mom would’ve been proud of.”

“Six meats, you missed one. Full credit — Teena did the dinner rolls, from scratch, and she composed the salad.”

“Well, young lady, I think your grandma would be proud of you, too. You’ve earned questions. I may stay awake long enough to answer them.”

“Yay.”

“First the dishes, guys, then to the living room.”

“Sure, Sis. And you get a question, too.”

“As a matter of fact…”

<later> “Okay, Teena, question number one.”

“Alright. Umm. Brian tries to annoy me by saying over and over that the Sun’s gonna supernova into a black hole. That’s not true, is it?”

“You can tell Brian that the Sun’s way too small to make either a supernova or a black hole. Yes, the Sun will collapse in something like five billion years, but when that happens it’ll only be a garden‑variety nova. When things calm down there’ll be a white dwarf in the middle of our Solar System, not a black hole. Supernovas come from really big stars and they leave neutron stars behind or sometimes just emptiness. To get a black hole you need a star at least half again bigger than ours. D’ya think that’ll shut Brian down?”

“No-o, because there’s other things he says to annoy me.”

“Like what?”

“That our galaxy’s gonna collide with another one and we’ll all burn up in the explosion.”

“He’s got a thing for disasters, doesn’t he? Well, he’s partially right but mostly wrong. Yes, galaxy Andromeda is on a collision course with the Milky Way. But that collision won’t be anything like what he’s talking about. Remember those bird flocks we talked about?”

“Oh that was so long ago. What was the word? Mur, mur .. something?”

“Murmuration. That was your favorite word back then.”

“Oh, yes. It still is, now that I remember it.” <Sis and I give each other a look.> “What do birds have to do with galaxies?”

“Imagine two flocks colliding. Think there’ll be feathers all over the place?”

“No, the flocks would pass right through each other, except maybe some birds from one flock might fly off with the other one.”

“That’s pretty much what will happen with us and Andromeda. Stars in each galaxy are lightyears apart, hundreds of star‑widths apart, like cars miles apart on a highway. Star‑star collisions during a galaxy collision will be very rare. The galaxy’s own shapes will be distorted and gravity will pull stars from one galaxy to the other, but that’s about the extent of it. Anyway, that’s also about five billion years into the future. So Brian’s off on that prediction, too. Anything else?”

“Actually, yes. He says we’re made of stardust. I thought we’re made of atoms.”

“Indeed we are, but the atoms come from stars. Quick story about how stars work. The oldest and most common kind of atom is hydrogen. Back at the beginning of the Universe that’s all there was. If you shove hydrogen atoms together with enough heat and pressure, like inside stars, they combine to form heavier atoms like carbon and oxygen. You’re made of hydrogen and carbon and oxygen and such, but all your atoms except hydrogen were cooked up inside stars.”

“But how did they get inside me?”

“Remember those novas and supernovas? Doesn’t matter which kind of star collapses, half or more of its atoms spray into the Universe. They become star dust adrift in the winds of space, waiting to become part of another solar system and whatever’s in it. Brian’s right on this one, you are made of star dust.”

“Whooo, that’s awesome!”

“My question’s after dessert, Sy.”

~~ Rich Olcott

  • Thanks to the young Museum visitors who asked these questions.

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