To Bond Or Not To Bond, That Is The Question

Vinnie’s pushing pizza crumbs around his plate, watching them clump together.  “These molecular orbitals gotta be pretty complicated.  How do you even write them down?”

“Combinations.  There’s a bunch of different strategies, but they all go back to Laplace’s spherical harmonics.  Remember, he showed that every possible distribution around a central attractor could be described as a combination of his patterns.  Turn on a field, like from another atom, and you just change what combination is active.  Here’s a sketch of the simplest case, two hydrogen atoms — see how the charge on each one bulges toward the other?  The bulge is a combination of a spherical orbital and a dumbbell one.  The molecular orbitals are combinations of orbitals from both atoms, describing how the charges overlap, or not.”Hydrogen molecule

“What’s that blue in the other direction?”

“Another possible combination.  You can combine atomic orbitals with pluses or minuses.  The difference is that the minus combination will always have an additional node in between.  Extra nodes mean higher energy, harder to activate. When the molecule’s in the lowest energy state, charge will be between the atoms where that extra node isn’t.”

“So the overlapped charge here is negative, right, and it pulls the two positive nucleusses —”


“Whatever, it pulls ’em together.  Why don’t they just merge?”

“Positive-positive repulsion counts, too.  At the equilibrium bond distance, the nuclei repel each other exactly as much as the shared charge pulls them together.”

Eddie’s still hovering by our table.  “You said that there’s this huge number of possible atomic orbitals.  Wouldn’t there be an even huger number of molecular orbitals?”

“Sure.  The trick is in figuring out which of them are lowest-energy and activated and how that relates to the molecule’s configuration.  Keep track of your model’s total energy as you move the atoms about, for instance, and you can predict the equilibrium distance where the energy is a minimum.  In principle you can calculate configuration changes as two molecules approach each other and react.”

“Looks like a lot of work.”

“For sure, Eddie.  Even a handful of atoms has lots of atomic orbitals to keep track of.  That can burn up acres of compute time.”

Vinnie pushes three crumbs into a triangle.  “You got three distances, you can figure their angles.  So you got the whole shape of the thing.”

“Right, but like Eddie said, that’s a lot of computer work.  Chemists had to come up with shortcuts.  As a matter of fact, they had the shortcuts way before the computers came along.”

“They used, like, abacuses?”

“Funny, Vinnie.  No, no math at all.  And it’s why they still show school-kids those Bohr diagrams.”

“Crazy Eights.”

“Eddie, you got games on the brain.  But yeah, eights.  Or better, quartets of pairs.  One thing I’ve not mentioned yet is that even though they’ve got the same charge, electrons are willing to pair up.”

“How come?”

“That’s the thing of it, Vinnie.  There’s a story about Richard Feynman, probably the foremost physicist of the mid-20th Century.  Someone asked him to explain the pairing-up without using math.  Feynman went into his office for a week, came back out and said he couldn’t do it.  The math demands pairing-up, but outside of the math all we can say is experiments show that’s how it works.”

“HAH, that’s the reason for the ‘two charge units per orbital’ rule!”

“Exactly, Eddie.  It’s how charge can collect in that bonding molecular orbital in the first place.  It’s also the reason that helium doesn’t form molecules at all.  Imagine two helium atoms, each with two units of charge.  Suppose they come close to each other like those hydrogens did.  Where would the charge go?”

“OK, you got two units going into that in-between space, ahh, and the other two activating that blue orbital and pulling the two atoms apart.  So that adds up to zero?”

“Uh-huh.  They just bounce off and away.”


“Hey, I got a question.  Your sketch has a ball orbital combining with a dumbbell.  But they’ve got different node counts, one and two.  Can you mix things from different shells?”

“Sure, Vinnie, if there’s enough energy.  The electron pair-up can release that much.”


~~ Rich Olcott


The Shell You Say

Everyone figures Eddie started his pizza place because he likes to eavesdrop.  No surprise, he wanders over to our table.  “I heard you guys talking about atoms and stuff and how Sy here don’t like Bohr’s model of electrons in atoms even though Bohr’s model and the shell model both account for hydrogen’s spectrum.  Why’s the shell model better?”

Vinnie comes back quick.  “Because it’s not physically impossible, for one thing.”

I’m on it.  “Because the shell model extends smoothly to atoms and ions in an electric or magnetic field.  Better yet, shell methods can be applied to molecules.”

“What do fields have to do with it?”

“It’ll help to know that some of those electron patterns come in sets.  The 2-node shell has three dumbbell shapes, for instance — one each along the x, y and z axes. Think about an atom all alone in space with no fields around.  How does it know which way z goes?””

“It don’t.  Everything’s gotta be in all directions, like spherical.”

Vinnie’s back in.  “I’m seeing an atom in an electric field, say up-to-down, it’s going to pull charge in one direction, say down.  So now the atom don’t look like no ball no more, right?”

orbital in a field

Vertical field on the right

“Right.  Once the atom’s got a special direction, those three dumbbells stop being equivalent.  We say that the field mixes together the spherical pattern (in atoms we’d call it an s-orbital) with that direction’s dumbbell (we’d call it a p-orbital) to make two combination orbitals.  One combination has a lump of charge stretched downwards and the other combination has a bowl of diminished charge stretched upwards.  The stronger the field, the wider the energy split between those two.”

“What about the other two dumbbells?”

“They’re still equivalent, Eddie.  If there’s charge in them it’s spread evenly around the equator like a doughnut.  Energy-wise they’re in between the two s±p combinations.”

IF there’s charge, like maybe there ain’t?”

“Ever suspicious, eh, Vinnie?  You’re right, and that’s a good point.  Orbitals are only a way to describe the chaos inside the atom, like notes are a way to describe music.  There are 3-node orbitals and 47-node orbitals, all the way up, but most of the time they’re not charge-activated just like a piano’s top note hardly ever gets played.”

“How do we know whether an orbital’s activated?”

“We’ve got rules for that, Eddie.  Maximum of two units of charge per orbital, lowest energy first.  Unless some light wave has deactivated a deeper orbital and activated a higher one.”

“You’re being careful again, not saying an electron’s here or an electron’s there.”

“Darn right, Vinnie.  It’s that chaos thing — charge is smeared all over the atom like air molecules jiggle all over the place to carry a sound wave.  Chemists and physicists may talk about ‘the electron in the 2s-orbital’ but that’s shorthand.  They know it’s really not like that.”

“I’m doing arithmetic over here.  So there’s two electrons, OK, call it two units of charge for that 1-node ball orbital, plus two units for the 2-node ball, plus two units each for the three dumbbells, uses up five orbitals.  That’s the same 2+8 stable mix that Bohr came up with.”

“Yeah, Eddie, but that field Sy talked about could be any strength.  Run the energy  equations backwards and the astronomers get a way to check a star’s fields.”

“Exactly, Vinnie.  Transitions involving combination orbitals have slightly different energy jumps than the ones we see in isolated atoms.  Electric and magnetic fields split each line in an element’s spectrum into multiplets.  Measure their splittings and you can work back to the field strengths that caused them.  The shell theory offers more predictions and more scientific insights than Bohr’s model ever dreamed of.”

“You said shell theory can handle molecules, too.  How’s that work?”

“Same as that electric field, but a lot messier.  Every nucleus exerts a field, mostly electric, on the rest of the molecule.  So does all the electron charge, but it’s more diffuse and includes more magnetism.  Molecular orbitals span the whole thing.  Works like atoms but much harder to calculate.”

“Figuring tips is easier,” hints Eddie.

~~ Rich Olcott

The Music of The Spherical Harmonics

Eddie’s diner serves tasty pizza, but his music playlist’s tasty, too — heavy with small-group vocals.  We’re talking atomic structure but suddenly Vinnie surprises me.  “Whoa, she’s got a hot voice!”


“That girl who’s singing.”

“Which one?  That’s a quartet.”

“The alto.”

“How can you pick one voice out of that close-harmony performance?”

“By listening!  She’s the only one singing those notes.”

“You’re hearing a chaotic sound wave yet you can pick out just one sound.”

“Yeah, just her special notes.”

“Interesting thing is, atoms do that, too.  Think about, say, a uranium atom, 92 electrons attracted by the nucleus, repelled by every other electron, all dashing about in the nuclear field and getting in each other’s way.  Think that’d be a nice, orderly picture?”

“Sure not.  It’d be, like you say, chaotic.”

“But just like we can describe a messy sound wave as a combination of frequencies, we can describe that atom’s electron structure as a combination of basic patterns.”  I pull Old Reliable from its holster and bring up an image.  “Here’s something I built for a presentation.  It’s a little busy so I’ll walk you through it.”Shell levels

“Busy, uh-huh.”

“Start with those blue circles.  They look familiar?”

“Right, they’re Laplace’s spherical patterns.  You got them sorted by how many blue spaces they got.”

“Yup.  Blue represents a node, a 2-D region where the value touches or crosses zero.  There are patterns with three or more nodes, but I ran out of space and patience to draw them.  Laplace showed there’s an infinite number of candidate patterns as you add more and more nodes.  You can describe any physically reasonable distribution around the central point as some combination of his patterns.”

“Why’d you draw them on stair-steps?”

“Because each step (we call it a shell) is at a different potential energy level.  Suppose, for instance, that there’s charge in that one-node pattern.  Moving it away from the nucleus puts a node there.  That’ll cost some energy and shift charge to the two-node shell.  To exclude it from there and also from another node, say a larger spherical surface, would take even more energy, and so on.”

“How is that potential energy?”

“We’re comparing shell energy to the energy of an electron that’s far away.  It’s like gravitational potential energy, maybe the energy a space rock converts to kinetic energy as it falls to Earth.  Call the far-away energy zero.  The numbers get more and more negative as the rock or the charge get closer to the center of attraction.”

“Ah, so that’s why you’ve got minus signs in the picture.”

“Exactly.  See zero at the top of the stairs?  With a hydrogen atom, for instance, an electron would give up 13.6 electron-volts of energy to get close to the nucleus in that 1-node pattern.  Conversely, it’d take 13.6 eV to rip that charge completely away.”

“If the 13.6 is what you’re calling ‘Minimum’, why not just write ‘–13.6’ in there?”

“It’s a different number for different atoms and even ions.  Astronomers see all kinds of ions with every amount of charge so they have to keep things general in their calculations.”

“What are those fractions about?  Wait, don’t tell me, I can figure this.  Each divisor is the square of its node count.  Are those the 1/n² numbers from whosit’s formula?”

Rydberg’s.  You’re on the right track, keep going.”

“If the minimum is 13.6 eV, the diagram says that the two-node shell is … 3.4 eV down from the top and … 10.2 eV up from the bottom.  And from what we said about the hydrogen spectrum, I’ll bet that 10.2 eV jump is the first line in that, was it the Ly series, the one in the ultra-violet?”

“Bravo, Vinnie!  The Lyman series it is.  Excellent memory for detail there.”

“I noticed something else.  You carefully didn’t say we moved an electron between shells.”

“That’s an important point.  At the atomic size scale we can’t treat the electron as a particle moving around.  Lightwaves act to turn off one shell and excite another one, like your singer exciting a different note.”

“Yes, she does.”

~~ Rich Olcott

  • Thanks to the Molnars for a delightful meal, and to their dinner party guests the Jumps for instigating this post.

Shells A-poppin’

We step into Eddie’s.  Vinnie spots Jeremy behind the gelato stand.  “Hey, kid, you studying something Science-y?”

“Yessir, my geology text.”

“Lemme see it a sec, OK?”

“Sure.  Want a gelato?”

“Yeah, gimme a pistachio, double-dip.  I’ll hold your book while you’re doing that.  Ah-hah, Sy, lookie here, page 37 — new textbook but this atom diagram coulda come right out of that 1912 Bohr paper you don’t like.  See, eight dots in a ring around the nucleus.  Can’t be wrong or it wouldn’t have survived this long, right?”

<sigh>  “What it is isn’t what it was.  Bohr proposed his model as a way to explain atomic spectra.  We’ve got a much better model now — but the two agree on three points.  Atoms organize their electronic charge in concentric shells, innermost shells deepest in the nuclear energy well.  Second, each shell has a limited capacity.  Third, when charge moves from one shell to another, light energy is absorbed or emitted to match the energy difference between shells.  Beyond those, not much.  Here, this diagram hints at the differences.”Better Bohr

“The scrambled-looking half is the new picture?”

“Pure chaos, where the only thing you can be sure of is the averages.  These days the Bohr model survives as just an accounting device to keep track of how much charge is in each shell.  That diagram — what kind of atom is it describing?”

“I dunno, two electrons inside, eight outside, ten total.”

“Could be neon, or a fluoride, oxide, sodium or magnesium ion.  From a quantum perspective they all look the same.”

“Here’s your gelato, sir.”

“Thanks, kid, here’s your book back.  But those are different elements, Sy.”

“The important thing, Vinnie, is they all have an outer shell with eight units of charge.  That’s the most stable configuration.”

“What’s so special about eight, Mr Moire?  If it’s pure chaos shouldn’t any number be OK?”

“Like I said, Jeremy, it’s the averages that count.  Actually, this is one of my favorite examples of what Wigner called ‘The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences.’  Back in 1782, a century and a quarter before anyone took atoms seriously, Laplace did some interesting math.  Have you ever waited for a pot of water to boil and spent the time tapping the pot to see the ripples?”

“Who hasn’t?  Doesn’t boil any faster, though.”

“True.  Looking at those waves, you saw patterns you don’t see with flat reflectors, right?”

“Oh, yeah — some like dumbbells, a lot of circles.”

“Mm-hm.  In a completely random situation all possible patterns could appear, but the pot’s circular boundary suppresses everything except wave patterns that match its symmetry.  You don’t see hexagons, for instance.”

“That’s right, I didn’t.”

“So there’s Laplace in the 1790s, thinking about Newton’s Law of Gravity, and he realizes that even in the boundaryless Solar System there’s still a boundary condition — any well-behaved standing wave has to have the same value at the central point no matter what direction you come from.  He worked out all the possible stable patterns that could exist in a central field like that.  Some of them look like what you saw in the water.  We now classify them by symmetry and node count.”

“Node?”Disk orbitals

“A region where the pattern hits zero, Vinnie.  Density waves range from zero to some positive value; other kinds range from positive to negative values.  A spherical wave could peak at the center and then go to zero infinitely far away.  One node.  Or it could be zero at the center, peak in a spherical shell some distance out and then fade away.  That’d be two nodes.  Or it could be zero at the center, zero far away, and have two peaks at different distances with a spherical third node in between.  Here’s another two-node pattern — that dumbbell shape with nodes at the center and infinity.  You can add radial nodes partway out.”

“I’m getting the picture.”

“Sure.  You might think Laplace’s patterns are just pretty pictures, but electron charge in atoms and ions just happens to collect in exactly those patterns.  Combine Laplace’s one-node and two-node patterns, you get the two lowest-energy stable shells.  They hold exactly ten charge units.  The energies are right, too.  Effective?”


~~ Rich Olcott

Prelude to A Shell Game

Big Vinnie barrels into the office.  “Hey, Sy, word is that you’ve been trash-talking Niels Bohr.  What’s the story?”

“Nothing against Bohr, Vinnie, he was a smart guy who ran a numbers game out of C-town —”

“Which C-town, Cincy or Cleveland?”

“Copenhagen.  But he got caught short at payoff time.  Trouble is, some people still think the game’s good which it’s not.”

Hydrogen spectrum

Hydrogen spectrum, adapted from work by Caitlin Jo Ramsey
(CC BY-SA 3.0)
via Wikimedia Commons

“Which numbers game was this — policy, mutuale, bolita?”


“Never heard of that one.”

“Rydberg was a Swedish physicist in the late 1800s.  He systemized a pile of lab and astronomy data about how hydrogen gas interacts with light.  Physicists like Lyman and Balmer showed how hydrogen’s complicated pattern (the white lines on black on this diagram) could be broken down to subsets that all have a similar shape (the colored lines).  Rydberg found a remarkably simple formula that worked for all the subsets.  Pick a line, measure its waves per meter. There’ll be a pair of numbers n1 and n2 such that the wave count is given by  Rydberg equationZ is the nuclear charge, which they’d just figured out how to measure, and R is a constant.  Funny how it just happens to be Rydberg’s initial.”

“Any numbers?”

“Small whole numbers, like 1, 2, up to 20 or so.  Each subset has the same n1 and a range of values for n2. The Lyman series, for instance, is based on n1=1, so you’ve got 1/1–1/4=3/4, 1/1–1/9=8/9, 15/16, 24/25, and so on. See how the fractions get closer together just like those lines do?”

“Nice, but why does it work out that way?”

“Excellent question, but no-one had an answer to that for 25 years until Bohr came up with his model.  Which on the one hand was genius and on the other was so bogus I can’t believe it’s still taught in schools.”

“So what did he say?”

“He suggested that an atom is structured like a solar system, planar, with electrons circling a central nucleus like little planets in their orbits. Unlike our Solar System, multiple electrons could share an orbit, chasing each other around a ring.  The 1/n² numbers are the energies of the different orbits, from n=1 outwards.  An electron in a close-in orbit would be tightly held by the nuclear electrical field; not so much for electrons further out.”

“Yeah, that sounds like what they taught us, alright.”

“Bohr then proposed that an incoming lightwave (he didn’t believe in photons) energizes an electron, moves it to a further-out orbit.  Conversely, a far-away electron can fall inward, emitting energy in the form of a lightwave.  Either way, the amount of energy in the lightwave depends only on the (1/n1²–1/n2²) energy difference between the two orbits.  The lightwave’s energy shows up in that wave number — more energy means more waves per meter and bluer light.”

“Ah, so that Ly series with n1=1 is from electrons falling all the way to the lowest-energy orbit and that’s why it’s all up in the … is that ultra-violet?”

“Yup, and you got it.  The Balmer series is the one with four lines in the visible.”

“Uhh… why wouldn’t everything just fall into the middle?”

“Bohr said each orbit would have a capacity limit, beyond which the ring would crinkle and eject surplus electrons.  He worked out limits for the first half-dozen elements but then things get fuzzy, with rings maybe colliding and swapping places.  Not satisfactory for predictions.  Worse, the physics just doesn’t work for his basic model.”No Bohr

“Really?  Bohr was a world-class physicist.”

“This was early days for atomic physics and people were still learning what to think about.  The Solar System is flat, more or less, so Bohr came up with a flat model.  But electrons repel each other.  They wouldn’t stay in a ring, they’d pop out to the corners of a regular figure like a tetrahedron or a cube.  That’d blow all his numbers.  The breaker payout, though, is his orbiting electrons must continually radiate lightwaves but don’t have an energy source for that.”

“Was he right about anything?”

“The model’s only correct notion was that lightwaves participate in shell transitions.  Schools should teach shells, not orbits.”

~~ Rich Olcott

Gravity from Another Perspective

“OK, we’re looking at that robot next to the black hole and he looks smaller to us because of space compression down there.  I get that.  But when the robot looks back at us do we look bigger?”

We’re walking off a couple of Eddie’s large pizzas.  “Sorry, Mr Feder, it’s not that simple.  Multiple effects are in play but only two are magnifiers.”

“What isn’t?”

“Perspective for one.  That works the same in both directions — the image of an object shrinks in direct proportion to how far away it is.  Relativity has nothing to do with that principle.”

“That makes sense, but we’re talking black holes.  What does relativity do?”

“Several things, but it’s complicated.”

“Of course it is.”

“OK, you know the difference between General and Special Relativity?”

“Yeah, right, we learned that in kindergarten.  C’mon.”

“Well, the short story is that General Relativity effects depend on where you are and Special Relativity effects depend on how fast you’re going.  GR says that the scale of space is compressed near a massive object.  That’s the effect that makes our survey robot appear to shrink as it approaches a black hole.  GR leaves the scale of our space larger than the robot’s.  Robot looks back at us, factors out the effect of perspective, and reports that we appear to have grown.  But there’s the color thing, too.”

“Color thing?”

“Think about two photons, say 700-nanometer red light, emitted by some star on the other side of our black hole.  One photon slides past it.  We detect that one as red light.  The other photon hits our robot’s photosensor down in the gravity well.  What color does the robot see?”

“It’s not red, ’cause otherwise you wouldn’t’ve asked me the question.”


“Robot’s down there where space is compressed…  Does the lightwave get compressed, too?”

“Yup.  It’s called gravitational blue shift.  Like anything else, a photon heading towards a massive object loses gravitational potential energy.  Rocks and such make up for that loss by speeding up and gaining kinetic energy.  Light’s already at the speed limit so to keep the accounts balanced the photon’s own energy increases — its wavelength gets shorter and the color shifts blue-ward.  Depending on where the robot is, that once-red photon could look green or blue or even X-ray-colored.”

“So the robot sees us bigger and blue-ish like.”Robots and perspective and relativity 2“But GR’s not the only player.  Special Relativity’s in there, too.”

“Maybe our robot’s standing still.”

“Can’t, once it gets close enough.  Inside about 1½ diameters there’s no stable orbit around the black hole, and of course inside the event horizon anything not disintegrated will be irresistibly drawn inward at ever-increasing velocity.  Sooner or later, our poor robot is going to be moving at near lightspeed.”

“Which is when Special Relativity gets into the game?”

“Mm-hm.  Suppose we’ve sent in a whole parade of robots and somehow they maintain position in an arc so that they’re all in view of the lead robot.  The leader, we’ll call it RP-73, is deepest in the gravity well and falling just shy of lightspeed.  Gravity’s weaker further out — trailing followers fall slower.  When RP-73 looks back, what will it see?”

“Leaving aside the perspective and GR effects?  I dunno, you tell me.”

“Well, we’ve got another flavor of red-shift/blue-shift.  Speedy RP-73 records a stretched-out version of lightwaves coming from its slower-falling followers, so so it sees their colors shifted towards the red, just the opposite of the GR effect.  Then there’s dimming — the robots in the back are sending out n photons per second but because of the speed difference, their arrival rate at RP-73 is lower.  But the most interesting effect is relativistic aberration.”

“OK, I’ll bite.”

“Start off by having RP-73 look forward.  Going super-fast, it intercepts more oncoming photons than it would standing still.”

“Bet they look blue to it, and really bright.”

“Right on.  In fact, its whole field of view contracts towards its line of flight.  The angular distortion continues all the way around.  Rearward objects appear to swell.”

“So yeah, we’d look bigger.”

“And redder.  If RP-73 is falling fast enough.”

~~ Rich Olcott

  • Thanks to Timothy Heyer for the question that inspired this post.

Water, Water Everywhere — How Come?

Lunch time, so I elbow my way past Feder and head for the elevator.  He keeps peppering me with questions.

“Was Einstein ever wrong?”

“Sure. His equations pointed the way to black holes but he thought the Universe couldn’t pack that much mass into that small a space.  It could.  There are other cases.”

We’re on the elevator and I punch 2.  “Where you going?  I ain’t done yet.”

“Down to Eddie’s Pizza.  You’re buying.”

“Awright, long as I get my answers.  Next one — if the force pulling an electron toward a nucleus goes as 1/r², when it gets to where r=0 won’t it get stuck there by the infinite force?”

“No, because at very short distances you can’t use that simple force law.  The electron’s quantum wave properties dominate and the charge is a spread-out blur.”

The elevator stops at 7.  Cathleen and a couple of her Astronomy students get on, but Feder just peppers on.  “So I read that everywhere we look in the Solar System there’s water.  How come?”

I look over at Cathleen.  “This is Mr Richard Feder of Fort Lee, NJ.  He’s got questions.  Care to take this one?  He’s buying the pizza.”

“Well, in that case.  It all starts with alpha particles, Mr Feder.”

The elevator door opens on 2, we march into Eddie’s, order and find a table.  “What’s an alpha particle and what’s that got to do with water?”

Alpha particle

Two protons and two neutrons, assembled as an alpha particle

“An alpha particle’s a fragment of nuclear material that contains two protons and two neutrons.  99.999% of all helium atoms have an alpha particle for a nucleus, but alphas are so stable relative to other possible combinations that when heavy atoms get indigestion they usually burp alpha particles.”

“And the water part?”

“That goes back to where our atoms come from — all our atoms, but in particular our hydrogen and oxygen.  Hydrogen’s the simplest atom, just a proton in its nucleus.  That was virtually the only kind of nucleus right after the Big Bang, and it’s still the most common kind.  The first generation of stars got their energy by fusing hydrogen nuclei to make helium.  Even now, that’s true for stars about the size of the Sun or smaller.  More massive stars support hotter processes that can make heavier elements.  Umm, Maria, do you have your class notes from last Tuesday?”

“Yes, Professor.”

“Please show Mr Feder that chart of the most abundant elements in the Universe.  Do you see any patterns in the second and fourth columns, Mr Feder?”

Element Atomic number Mass % *103 Atomic weight Atom % *103
Hydrogen 1 73,900 1 92,351
Helium 2 24,000 4 7,500
Oxygen 8 1,040 16 81
Carbon 6 460 12 48
Neon 10 134 20 8
Iron 26 109 56 2
Nitrogen 7 96 14 <1
Silicon 14 65 32 <1

“Hmm…  I’m gonna skip hydrogen, OK?  All the rest except nitrogen have an even atomic number, and all of ’em except nitrogen the atomic weight is a multiple of four.”

“Bravo, Mr Feder.  You’ve distinguished between two of the primary reaction paths that larger stars use to generate energy.  The alpha ladder starts with carbon-12 and adds one alpha particle after another to go from oxygen-16 on up to iron-56.  The CNO cycle starts with carbon-12 and builds alphas from hydrogens but a slow step in the cycle creates nitrogen-14.”

“Where’s the carbon-12 come from?”

“That’s the third process, triple alpha.  If three alphas with enough kinetic energy meet up within a ridiculously short time interval, you get a carbon-12.  That mostly happens only while a star’s going nova, simultaneously collapsing its interior and spraying most of its hydrogen, helium, carbon and whatever out into space where it can be picked up by neighboring stars.”

“Where’s the water?”

“Part of the whatever is oxygen-16 atoms.  What would a lonely oxygen atom do, floating around out there?  Look at Maria’s table.  Odds are the first couple of atoms it runs across will be hydrogens to link up with.  Presto!  H2O, water in astronomical quantities.  The carbon atoms can make methane, CH4; the nitrogens can make ammonia, NH3; and then photons from Momma star or somewhere can help drive chemical reactions  between those molecules.”

“You’re saying that the water astronomers find on the planets and moons and comets comes from alpha particles inside stars?”

“We’re star dust, Mr Feder.”

~~ Rich Olcott