We Are Stardust

We are stardust
We are golden
And we’ve got to get ourselves
Back to the garden

Joni Mitchell “Woodstock” (1970)

A few months ago I ran into the periodic table above, detailing the cosmological origins of the chemical elements. And it occurred to me that I could quantify Joni Mitchell’s claim that “we are stardust”. How much of the human body is actually produced by the stars? But before I get to that, I should probably explain a little about the various categories indicated by the colours in the chart above.

As the Universe expanded after the Big Bang, protons and neutrons were formed from quarks, and there was a brief period (a few minutes) when the whole Universe was hot and dense enough for nuclear fusion to take place—just enough time to build up the nuclei of a couple of very light elements, but not enough to produce anything heavier in any significant quantity.* So what came out of the Big Bang was hydrogen, helium and a little lithium—the first three elements of the periodic table. The rest of the chemical elements that make up the solar system, the Earth, and our bodies were produced by fusion reactions inside stars.

The first stars formed about 100 million years after the Big Bang, and were composed entirely of hydrogen, helium, and a little lithium. Conditions at that time favoured the formation of large stars, which burned through their nuclear fuel quickly. A series of fusion reactions in such massive stars generates energy, producing progressively heavier atomic nuclei until the “iron peak” is reached—beyond that point, the creation of heavier nuclei requires an input of energy. When the star exhausts its energy reserves in this way, it collapses and then explodes as a core-collapse supernova (an “exploding massive star” in the table above). This propels the elements synthesized by the star out into space, and also drives a final burst of additional fusion as shock waves sweep outwards through the body of the star, producing a few elements that lie beyond the iron peak, as far as rubidium. The remnant of the supernova’s core collapses into a neutron star, or perhaps even a black hole.

These elements produced by the first supernovae seed the gas clouds which later condense into subsequent generations of stars. The lower-mass stars which appeared later in the Universe’s lifetime (such as the sun) are unable to drive internal fusion as far as the iron peak, and stall their fusion processes after producing only the relatively light nuclei of carbon and oxygen. They evolve into red giants stars (“dying low-mass stars”, above), puff off their outer layers, and then subside to become white dwarfs. But during this process they are able to breed higher-mass elements from the metal contaminants they inherited from the first supernovae. Neutrons from the star’s fusion reactions are absorbed by these heavy nuclei, gradually building them up into ever-heavier elements with higher atomic numbers, as some of the neutrons convert to protons by emitting an electron (beta decay). This building process finally “sticks” when it gets to Bismuth-210, which decays by emitting an alpha particle (two neutrons and two protons), rather than an electron. So, perhaps counter-intuitively, the gentle wind from low-mass stars in their red-giant phase enriches the interstellar medium with heavier atoms than does the spectacular explosion of a supernova.

But once a low-mass star has finished its red-giant phase and settled to become a white dwarf, it may (rarely) manage to turn into a supernova. For this to happen, it must have a companion star orbiting close by, which expands and spills material from its own outer envelope on to the white dwarf’s surface. Once a critical mass of material accumulates, a runaway fusion reaction takes place and blows the white dwarf apart in what’s called a Type Ia supernova. The nature of the fusion reaction is different from what occurs in the core-collapse supernovae, so Type Ia supernovae (“exploding white dwarfs”, above) eject a slightly different spectrum of elements into space—in particular, they don’t create any elements beyond the iron peak.

The processes described so far account for almost all the elements up to bismuth. To produce heavier elements requires a massive bombardment of neutrons, building up nuclei faster than they can decay and thereby pushing beyond the “bismuth barrier” I described earlier. Such torrents of neutrons occurs when neutron stars collide. As their name suggests, neutron stars contain a lot of neutrons, and if two of these supernova remnants are formed in close orbit around each other they may eventually collide. This unleashes a massive blast of neutrons, which bombard the conventional matter on the surface of the neutron stars, building up heavy radioactive elements before they have a chance to decay, and ejecting these products into space.

Finally, a few of the lightest elements are formed by cosmic rays (particles generated during supernova explosions). When these rapidly moving particles strike carbon or oxygen nuclei in space, they can break them into lighter fragments. This process accounts for almost all the beryllium and boron in the Universe, and some of the lithium.

Here on Earth, we have a few more processes that contribute to the mix of chemical elements around us. There’s natural radioactive decay, which is slowly converting some chemical elements into slightly lighter ones. And there are artificial radioactive elements, which we produce in our bombs and nuclear reactors. But these are essentially minor processes in the scheme of things, and I feel safe to ignore them here.

It should come as no surprise that our bodies are made up primarily of the most common chemical elements in the Universe—that is, hydrogen from the Big Bang, and those elements from early in the periodic table which are most frequently spewed out by dying or exploding stars. Indeed, apart from the noble gases helium, neon and argon, an adult human body contains significant traces (more than 100 micrograms) of every element from hydrogen to the “iron peak” elements that represent the limits of equilibrium stellar fusion processes. And a surprising number of these elements have biological roles.

The water that makes up the bulk of our bodies is composed of hydrogen and oxygen. The fats and carbohydrates of our tissues consist of hydrogen, oxygen and carbon, and our proteins add nitrogen and a little sulphur to that mix. Calcium and phosphate are the major structural components of our bones, and sodium, potassium, magnesium and chlorine are present as dissolved ions in our body water, regulating the activity of our cells.

In smaller quantities, there are elemental micronutrients that we must have in our diet in small quantities to stay healthy. Iron, an oxygen-carrying component of haemoglobin and myoglobin, is the major such micronutrient. Iodine is required for thyroid function, cobalt is a component of Vitamin B12, and chromium is present in a hormone called Glucose Tolerance Factor. To these we can add manganese, copper, zinc, selenium and molybdenum, all of which are required for the function of various enzymes. People eating anything approximating a normal diet obtain all these latter elements in adequate quantities, but they must be carefully provided for patients reliant on intravenous feeding in Intensive Care Units.

A few elements seem to produce deficiency syndromes in experimental animals that are fed very carefully controlled diets. Silicon, vanadium, nickel and tin fall into this group, but their biological role, and relevance to humans, is unknown. And then there are the elements which are known to be present in the human body, but appear to have no function—they’re probably just in our tissues because they’re in our food. Some are industrial contaminants, like mercury and lead; but some, like lithium and boron, are probably just part of the natural environment.

Cover of "Nature's Building Blocks" by John Emsley

Estimates of the elemental make-up of the human body vary. I’ve used the figures quoted by John Emsley in his marvellous book Nature’s Building Blocks: An A-Z Guide to the Elements, and found 54 elements that are present in a 70-kilogram human in quantities that exceed 100 micrograms.

Summing the proportions of all these elements that come from different cosmological sources, I was able to produce this infographic:

The cosmic origins of the chemical elements that make up the human body
Click to enlarge

(There are no prizes for identifying the original source of the human outlines used.)

Hydrogen, although the most common element in the human body, is also the lightest. So it accounts for just 10% of our weight, and that is, to a good approximation, the only component of our bodies that originated in the Big Bang, because we contain helium and lithium in only tiny quantities.

So the rest was produced, directly or indirectly, in stars. The oxygen in our body water and in our tissues accounts for the large majority of that, originating from core-collapse supernovae. Carbon and nitrogen in our tissues makes up much of the remaining mass, mainly coming from the stellar wind produced by low-mass stars in their red-giant phase. And the rare white-dwarf explosions, Type Ia supernovae account for just 1% of our weight, producing a significant fraction of the calcium and phosphorus in our bones, and some of the important ions dissolved in our body water. Neutron star mergers, even rarer than exploding white dwarfs, are responsible for a few trace elements, most notably almost all the iodine in our thyroid glands. And cosmic-rays from supernovae account for the production of the (apparently biologically inactive) boron and beryllium in our bodies, as well as a little of the lithium.

So to be strictly accurate, Joni Mitchell should have written “We are 90% stardust”.

* One of the earliest publications on this topic was a Letter to the Editor entitled “The Origin Of Chemical Elements” (Physical Review 1948 73: 803-4). The authors were Ralph Alpher, Hans Bethe and George Gamow. Alpher was a PhD student at the time, and Gamow was his supervisor. Alpher’s dissertation was on the topic of what’s now called Big Bang nucleosynthesis—the process of nuclear fusion during the first few minutes of the Big Bang. Bethe was a physicist working in the field of nuclear fusion in stars, but had made no contribution at all to Alpher’s work. He was only included as an author to allow Gamow to make a pun on the Greek alphabet—Alpher, Bethe, Gamow; alpha, beta, gamma. Gamow must have been delighted when their letter was published in the April 1 edition of Physical Review.

2 thoughts on “We Are Stardust”

  1. An extraordinarily – and extra-galactically – good read, which nearly had me singing Tom Lehrer’s ‘Elements’ song all over again … as featured in the Open University’s Science Foundation Course in the 1990s … Thanks for the memories and the stellar cast.

  2. I’m glad you found it interesting. I almost added a link to Lehrer’s song when I was writing the post, but thought it was too divergent even by my standards. But since you brought it up …

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