# Layer Upon Layer

“Excuse me, profesora, you wanted me to come to your office?”

“Yes, Maria. Come in, please. I wanted to have a chat with you before you give your class presentation tomorrow.”

“I am a little nervous about it.”

“I thought you might be. I wanted to help with that. I’ll start by saying that your English language skills have gotten much better than you give yourself credit for. Better yet, you’ll be speaking before friends who want you to succeed. I’m sure you’ll do fine. I think if we go over your material together you’ll be more confident. Come open your laptop on my desk where we can both see it. Now bring up your first slide.”

“Yes, profesora. Already you know that the title of my presentation is ‘The Structure of The Sun.’ I only have one slide, this one, that shows a slice of a star like our Sun.”

“How did the star get that way?”

“It condensed from a galactic gas cloud that was mostly hydrogen. I plan to talk about that with waving of the hands because a good picture of it needs to be in motion and I don’t know how to do that yet.”

“Fair enough, just don’t skip over it. Beginnings are important. Now talk me through your diagram.”

“It starts in the middle ¿see the fusion zone? where protons, that’s hydrogen atoms without their electrons, are squeezed together to release energy and make alpha particles, that’s helium atoms without their electrons. The protons have the same charge so they push each other away, but they are beneath many kilometers of mass that push them together. Also, the temperature is very hot, tens of millions of degrees. Hot atoms move fast, so when the protons are pushed together it happens with enough force and speed .. sorry, I need a word, superar?”

“Overcome.”

“Thank you. The protons are pushed together with enough force and speed to overcome the charge barrier. The actual reactions are complicated. At the end there is an alpha particle, four times heavier than a proton, and there is much more energy than the overcoming used up. The fusion zone makes heat and the heavy alpha particles fall down into the ash zone. The heat must go somewhere. Already the center is hotter so the new heat goes upward into the radiation zone.”

“And it’s called that because…?”

“Because atom motion is so, mm, frantic?”

“Good word.”

“… So frantic that there’s no moving in the same direction together, no convection like when steam rises over boiling water. Heat can only travel by convection, conduction or radiation. If there is no convection, moving heat must go neighbor‑to‑neighbor by conduction which is collision or by radiation which is photons jumping between atoms again and again until they escape. I have read that one photon’s energy can take 10000 years to cross the radiation zone.”

“So how is the next zone different?”

“It is much higher up from the center, nearly ¾ of the way to the surface. The pressure is 100 times less than in the fusion zone. The atoms have more room to move around together and form winds to carry the heat up by convection. But they can’t only go up, they have to come down, too, and that’s why my drawing has loops.”

“Is there a name for the loops?”

“Oh, yes, they are called Bénard cells and they’re very much like what I see looking into a pot of water just before it boils.”

“What’s the orange above the convection zone?”

“That’s the part of the Sun that we see, the photosphere that emits light in a continuous spectrum. The Fraunhofer lines, the dark lines in the astronomer’s spectrum, are the shadows of atoms high in in the photosphere that absorb only certain colors. I was surprised to learn how narrow the photosphere is, not even 0.02% of the Sun’s radius. Anyway, that’s my presentation, but now I have a question. The Sun’s fuel is hydrogen. The books say when the Sun runs out of fuel it will eject much of its hydrogen mass and collapse to a white dwarf. So it didn’t run out of fuel, yes?”

~~ Rich Olcott

# Prelude to A Waltz

An excited knock, but one I recognize.  In comes Vinnie, waving his fresh copy of The New York Times.

LIGO‘s done it again!  They’ve seen another black hole collision!”

“Yeah, Vinnie, I’ve read the Abbott-and-a-thousand paper.  Three catastrophic collisions detected in less than two years.  The Universe is starting to look like a pretty busy place, isn’t it?”

“And they all involve really big black holes — 15, 20, even 30 times heavier than the Sun.  Didn’t you once say black holes that size couldn’t exist?”

“Well, apparently they do.  Of course the physicists are busily theorizing how that can happen.  What do you know about how stars work, Vinnie?”

“They get energy from fusing hydrogen atoms to make helium atoms.”

“So far, so good, but then what happens when the hydrogen’s used up?”

“They go out, I guess.”

“Oh, it’s a lot more exciting than that. Does the fusion reaction happen everywhere in the star?”

“I woulda said, ‘Yes,’ but since you’re asking I’ll bet the answer is,  ‘No.'”

“Properly suspicious, and you’re right.  It takes a lot of heat and pressure to force a couple of positive nuclei close enough to fuse together despite charge repulsion.  Pressures near the outer layers are way too low for that.  For our Sun, for instance, you need to be 70% of the way to the center before fusion really kicks in.  So you’ve got radiation pressure from the fusion pushing everything outward and gravity pulling everything toward the center.  But what’s down there?  Here’s a hint — hydrogen’s atomic weight is 1, helium’s is 4.”

“You’re telling me that the heavier atoms sink to the center?”

“I am.”

“So the center builds up a lot of helium.  Oh, wait, helium atoms got two protons in there so it’s got to be harder to mash them together than mashing hydrogens, right?”
“And that’s why that region’s marked ash zone in this sketch.  Wherever conditions are right for hydrogen fusion, helium’s basically inert.  Like ash in a campfire it just sinks out of the way.  Now the fire goes out.  What would you expect next?”

“Radiation pressure’s gone but gravity’s still there … everything must slam inwards.”

Slam is an excellent word choice, even though the star’s radius is measured in thousands of miles.  What’s the slam going to do to the helium atoms?”

“Is it strong enough to start helium fusion?”

“That’s where I’m going.  The star starts fusing helium at its core.  That’s a much hotter reaction than hydrogen’s.  When convective zone hydrogen that’s still falling inward meets fresh outbound radiation pressure, most of the hydrogen gets blasted away.”

“Fusing helium – that’s a new one on me.  What’s that make?”

“Carbon and oxygen, mostly.  They’re as inert during the helium-fusion phase as helium was when hydrogen was doing its thing.”

“So will the star do another nova cycle?”

“Maybe.  Depends on the core’s mass.  Its gravity may not be intense enough to fuse helium’s ashes.  In that case you wind up with a white dwarf, which just sits there cooling off for billions of years.  That’s what the Sun will do.”

“But suppose the star’s heavy enough to burn those ashes…”

“The core’s fresh light-up blows away infalling convective zone material.  The core makes even heavier atoms.  Given enough fuel, the sequence repeats, cycling faster and faster until it gets to iron.  At each stage the star has less mass than before its explosion but the residual core is more dense and its gravity field is more intense.  The process may stop at a neutron star, but if there was enough fuel to start with, you get a black hole.”

“That’s the theory that accounts for the Sun-size black holes?”

“Pretty much.  I’ve left out lots of details, of course.  But it doesn’t account for black holes the size of 30 Suns — really big stars go supernova and throw away so much of their mass they miss the black-hole sweet spot and terminate as a neutron star or white dwarf.  That’s where the new LIGO observation comes in.  It may have clued us in on how those big guys happen.”

“That sketch looks like a pizza slice.”

“You’re thinking dinner, right?”

“Yeah, and it’s your turn to buy.”

~~ Rich Olcott