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We Are Stardust!

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Higgs Force: We Are Stardust!

            We are stardust, we are golden,
            And we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden.
            We are stardust, billion year old carbon,
            we are golden.

                      Woodstock - Joni Mitchell (1969)

In the Victorian era, scientists debated the age of the Earth. The physicists led by Lord Kelvin argued that the Earth and sun could not be more than a few million years old. No known power source could illuminate the sun for any longer than this. But the new sciences of geology and evolutionary biology provided mountains of evidence to suggest that the Earth must be much older than this. The discrepancy was resolved in the 20th century when it was realised that the earlier generation of physicists had been missing a key feature of reality. They had no knowledge of radioactivity or nuclear power.

In addition to electromagnetism, two other forces are important in the nucleus of an atom. We know them as the weak force and the strong force. In this chapter we will take a look at the weak force. This force may be extremely weak, but it plays an extremely important role in the functioning of the universe. The immense power output of stars such as the sun is the result of nuclear fusion reactions that gradually convert the star’s mass of hydrogen into helium. The key first step in this reaction is an incredibly slow process that is controlled by the weak force. If the weak force was any stronger, then the sun would have used up its hydrogen fuel much faster and there would not have been sufficient time for the evolution of intelligent life on Earth.

Higgs Force by Nicholas Mee

One of the great achievements of 20th century science was the elucidation of the nuclear processes within the stars. This has provided us with an explanation of how the chemical elements were formed. The no-nonsense Yorkshireman Fred Hoyle was one of the key characters who worked out the details of the nuclear physics. With his colleagues, he showed how each of the elements could be synthesised in the extreme conditions within very massive stars. Such stars end their lives in an enormous explosion known as a supernova in which their entire chemical broth is dispersed throughout the galaxy. Like a cosmic alchemist, the weak force is responsible for this transmutation of the elements. It is also responsible for the supernovae explosions that blast this Periodic Table full of elements into interstellar space.

Higgs Force by Nicholas Mee
Higgs Force by Nicholas Mee

The galaxy is filled with dust clouds that have been produced by the explosions of earlier generations of stars. New stars condense from these clouds. About 4.6 billion years ago the sun and its planetary system condensed from just such a dust cloud. All the atoms, other than hydrogen, that coalesced to create the Earth must have been synthesised within an earlier massive star that exploded to spread its contents into space. It is an awe-inspiring thought that every atom in our bodies was created in the nuclear furnace at the core of a star. We truly are stardust.

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