The Feast of the Elements
Let us imagine a December—perhaps this coming December—when Christians will celebrate Christmas, Jews will commemorate Hanukkah, Muslims will observe Ramadan (on some years), Native Americans and Pagans will experience the Solstice, African Americans will gather for Kwanzaa . . . AND people of these religious faiths, or none, will also take time to honor an event that preceded all our holy days (even the first solstice), an event that has the potential to unite us all.
Might it be our time in history to begin honoring the birth of the elements?
Since 1957, scientists have known that all chemical elements (other than the simplest hydrogen and helium) were created not In the Beginning – not at the moment of the Big Bang – but very much later, and in the depths of massive stars. All of the carbon in our own bodies and in the bodies of all living beings, all of the oxygen in the air and bonded to hydrogen in molecules of water, and all of the silicon in rocks and sand and computer chips – all these elements, every single atom, came into existence inside a star.
Imagine that: inside a star! For many of us moved by the cosmic epic offered by science, there is no realization more magnificent than this: We know we are stardust – recycled stardust from the generations of stars that preceded the birth of our own sun. Everything that we can see, touch, or taste is stardust too. We are not only drawn from the dust of the Earth. The dust of the Earth is itself a (God-given) gift of the celestial realm.
Only stars at least eight times the size of our sun can take this path of elemental creation. And those that do are so busy burning hydrogen and helium into the full spectrum of elements that they blaze and die in a mere 10 million years, rather than the expected 10 billion year life span of our own modest star. It is one thing to create the palette of elements; it is another to launch them into the galaxy. A star that forged the Periodic Table as far as iron will collapse upon itself. Then, rebounding in a supernova explosion of unimaginable brightness, the remaining heavy elements churn into existence – all the gold-leaf in an ancient Koran, all the silver in a Hanukkah menorah, all the copper in a bronze Buddha, all the tin in Christmas tinsel.
All the complex atoms in your body and everything around you were at one time streaming away from just such a dying star. This is truly a miracle of Creation. The birth of chemical elements manifests divine creativity, however one may think of God. Does it not make sense to celebrate this common reality?
Might it be possible to co-create a ritual, a process, a holy season that embraces and includes all the diverse elements of the already existing holy season at the end of the year? What if we all participated in our culturally diverse celebrations and yet also had something of depth and meaning we could share that favors no one tradition above another?
For Christians: The birth of the elements is a reminder of another divine birth, that of Jesus, the Christ. The star of Bethlehem that briefly shown brighter than all the other stars in the night sky is the very image of a supernova exploding its gifts. The fruit of heaven is now incarnate everywhere; we experience divinity on Earth when we remember that all began as stardust.
For Jews: The sequential lighting of the Hanukkah candles might represent, too, the sequential creation of elements, all from an initial source of hydrogen, and radiating light in the process. The miracle that occurred in the temple is thus supported by an even vaster miracle that pertains to all peoples, all creatures, and all planets and moons in this solar system.
For Muslims: Divine revelation did not cease with Moses or Jesus, but is believed to have carried on through Mohammad. So, too, might we consider that divine revelation continues even today through the great community of scientists observing, and testing, and puzzling over the mysteries of the cosmos. This would be a time for honoring, as well, the Islamic seekers in Arabia and Persia who initiated true scientific inquiry well before Europeans joined in this effort.
For Buddhists: Light and transformation are at the core of the December 8 commemoration of the day Gautama Sakyamuni became the Buddha – literally, the “enlightened one.” His spiritual transformation is said to have taken place as he was meditating beneath a ficus tree, and as the light of the morning star (now recognized as Venus) shone upon him. The lighting of candles is a Mahayana tradition on this day, and because enlightenment occurred under a tree, one may interpret that spiritual awakening is related to our harmonious connection with the world of Nature.
For all those who honor the solstice (Winter solstice in the northern hemisphere; Summer in the southern), December is a time of intense gratitude for our own star, our sun. We might extend this appreciation to include the scientific news that our star is too small to burn out in a few million year flash of matter-making. Yet we also experience deep gratitude for the ephemeral giants who came before, the previous generations of stars who gave birth to the chemical elements that made these planets and this life and all our joys and sorrows and reverence and gratitude possible.
For African Americans who not long ago created Kwanzaa to provide unity in a new land, we can heed this example and know that the time for growing new traditions in response to new needs is never over. As candles are lit in sequence, and elders are honored, so too might the sequence of elements – elders all – be honored in turn.
The list need not end here. Surely Hindus, Confucians, and others — any religious orientation — could creatively honor their traditions in ways that link the particular with the shared story of our celestial origin.
Creativity. Creation. Giving of oneself – just as the ancestral stars, in a way, gave of themselves for the eventual emergence of planets and life. This insight, too, could help reorient the American version of ‘the holidays’ away from its recent excesses of consumerism and back toward the deeper meaning of religious traditions.
Can you imagine a new tradition of honoring the creativity of this vast universe, of Reality, of God, by giving only gifts that we ourselves created? To thus truly give of ourselves, as did the stars, as does our sun every moment, radiating photons of self onto the turning Earth. We would give of our time, of our imagination. Generosity, gratitude. As for the economy? Well, artists would be back in demand, throughout the year, helping us remember what we did so naturally as four-year-olds: how to create – how to playfully indulge our deepest human urges for participating in the work of the divine.
In the Part 2 email is a first draft of the science component of a 19-part sequence for a “Feast of Elements.” This sequence might be read over the course of 19 days, or several days, or all at once. Candles might be lit, as well, for each part. We envision that each religious tradition could add onto the science a values component that calls up basic principles of faith and fulfillment suggestive of each segment. We also envision including one empowering question per day (per element) that participants could ask themselves and one another.
_ 1. THE FEAST OF ELEMENTS. In the month of December we celebrate the feast of elements, the step-by-step birth of each chemical element into this grand and mysterious universe. We will reflect on how everything now upon the Earth and within our own bodies was once swirling in the heavens. We will honor the generations of elder stars who came before our own star, the sun. We will marvel at the celestial gifts we too often take for granted. We will come to know that as truly as we are formed from the dust of the earth we are also formed from the dust of the stars, and that the very same dynamics that congealed the galaxies and set clumps of simple matter ablaze are present still in our own longings for transformation.
_ 2. HYDROGEN is the simplest, lightest, and most abundant of all chemical elements in the universe. Hydrogen was born before any other – before carbon, before oxygen, before iron, before gold. The universe was awash in hydrogen – immense clouds of hydrogen gas – long before there were any stars, even before the galaxies began to spin into existence. Hydrogen emerged in the early universe when energy congealed into matter. The whole palette of chemical elements that would ever grace the cosmos can be traced back to the fusion of simple hydrogen into more and more complex forms. Hydrogen atoms reside in every cell of our bodies, in every cell of every plant, animal, fungus, and microscopic creature on and within Earth. Hydrogen atoms are there in every morsel of food we eat, every beverage we swallow. Without hydrogen, too, there would be no clouds, no rain, no snow, no rivers, no oceans, no baths or showers, because water itself is made, in part, of hydrogen.
_ 3. HELIUM is first-born of hydrogen. In the early universe, when hydrogen atoms collided into one another, they sometimes fused into helium. Helium is what our own star, the sun, is creating this very moment. A vast ball of hydrogen, our sun “burns” its own body into helium, giving off heat and light in so doing. Helium is also what is found in a child’s balloon; lighter than air, a helium balloon rises tall on its leash or races upward if let go. Helium is so stable in itself that it dains to combine with no other atom. Hydrogen happily teams up with carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, and others, but helium forever remains aloof from the busy-ness of life.
_ 4. After hydrogen fused into helium, helium fused into CARBON. But helium fused into carbon only within the hot bellies of giant stars. Long after those stars exploded and sent their elemental gifts out into the universe, carbon became the very frame of life for earthly creatures. For webs and chains and and spirals of carbon atoms are what genes and proteins are made of. Carbon is the carbo in carbohydrates – the quick energy of sugar in an apple, the sustained energy of starch in rice. Carbon is also the carbon in hydrocarbons: fuel from the deep Earth that powers our cars and buses and heats many a home. Elemental carbon is the blackness of soot, of tar, of asphalt on the road, of ink, of pencil, of charred food. Yet, when married to two oxygen atoms, it forms an invisible gas: carbon dioxide. When we breathe out, we liberate carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. We thus liberate the carbon atoms that were once in our food into a form that can be wafted on the wind, carried to a waiting leaf that will turn carbon once again into life and food. And so, we remember with amazement that every atom of carbon everywhere on Earth – including those pressed together into the rarest form of carbon of all: diamond – all this carbon first came into being within the fiery belly of a giant star – a star that exploded long ago somewhere in the heavens.
_ 5. After hydrogen fused into helium, and helium into carbon, the next element born within the belly of a giant star was NITROGEN. Today, nitrogen makes up the bulk of Earth’s blue-tinted atmosphere. Most of the air in your lungs right now is nitrogen gas. Nitrogen atoms are crucial components of proteins and genes, but we animals have no way to wrest them from the air we breathe. We breathe in nitrogen gas, and we breathe the same molecules out, unchanged. The nitrogen in the atmosphere is actually a pair of nitrogen atoms bound together in a nearly unbreakable embrace – a triple bond, the strongest chemical hold there is. Among living organisms, only bacteria have the power to break that bond. We and all animals thus rely on plants, who in turn rely on bacteria, to transform molecular nitrogen into forms the rest of us can use. The one exception is our own. Like all animals, human bodies cannot break down molecular nitrogen into useful components, but the human mind can. Fertilizer plants that split atmospheric nitrogen into atoms and then bond these atoms with hydrogen is the power of the human mind to transform the material world. And so, we remember with wonder that every atom of nitrogen everywhere on Earth first came into being within the fiery belly of a giant star – a star that exploded long ago somewhere in the heavens.
_ 6. After hydrogen fused into helium and helium into carbon, and thence nitrogen, the ancient star next forged OXYGEN. Ah, oxygen! Not for more than a few minutes could any human, beast, or bird survive without a breath of this precious gas. Fortunately, oxygen is not in short supply. It is second only to nitrogen in abundance in Earth’s atmosphere. We animals use oxygen to burn our food into energy for building proteins and genes, for pumping a heart, for flexing muscles, for focusing eyes, for thinking and remembering and speaking and singing. And yet, and yet, what is now so essential for life was once a deadly poison. Oxygen is the fastest way to burn food, but if our bodies are not careful, we burn up our very cells, too. Thus anti-oxidants, like vitamin C, circulate in our bloodstream to hold the power of oxygen in check. Where does the oxygen we inhale come from? From trees and flowers and grasses and seaweeds and green bacteria who all get it initially from droplets of water. These plants and microscopic life all send off oxygen into the atmosphere as a waste gas, when extracting valuable hydrogen from water. Every atom of oxygen in your lungs right this moment was in the atmosphere less than a minute ago, and last year it might have been part of a snowflake that fell in China. Long, long before that, it might have been inside a chunk of limestone on a mountaintop in Nepal, and before that, part of a clamshell along the shore of the Indian Ocean. T. rex might have breathed in that very same atom of oxygen, too. And so, we remember with gratitude the miraculous journey of each and every oxygen atom, a journey that began in the fiery belly of a giant star – a star that exploded long ago somewhere in the heavens.
_ 7. After hydrogen fused into helium and helium into carbon, thence into nitrogen and oxygen, along came SODIUM. Sodium is the first element in the chemical sequence that is too heavy to ever spend any time as a gas up in the atmosphere. Sodium, in combination with elemental chlorine, is the very salt of the earth. We use sodium, as salt, to flavor food, to preserve meat. Sodium feldspar is abundant in some kinds of granite and other igneous rocks. Winds and rains slowly, slowly erode this sodium out of the rock, and then rivers carry it out to sea. It is this very same sodium, washed out of rock, that gives seawater its salty taste, and that makes even saltier the land-locked small seas – like Great Salt Lake in Utah or the Dead Sea of Jordan and Israel. Sodium makes our tears salty, too. We remember with astonishment that every atom of sodium everywhere on Earth first came into being within the fiery belly of a giant star – a star that exploded long ago somewhere in the heavens.
_ 8. After hydrogen fused into helium and helium into carbon, thence into nitrogen and oxygen and sodium, along came MAGNESIUM. Magnesium is one of many “trace elements” that animals like us require in small doses in order to stay alive. Fortunately, this trace element is offered to us by every green plant that we eat. This is because a single atom of magnesium sits at the very center of the complex molecule that plants use to capture the energy of sunlight: chlorophyll. A single atom of magnesium sits at the very center of a chlorophyll molecule. And where do plants acquire magnesium from in the first place? From rocks! Like sodium, magnesium is abundant in some kinds of rocks. And like sodium, it is too heavy an element to ever be wafted around in the clouds. We remember with astonishment that every atom of magnesium everywhere on Earth first came into being within the fiery belly of a giant star – a star that exploded long ago somewhere in the heavens.
_ 9. After hydrogen fused into helium and helium into carbon, thence into nitrogen and oxygen and sodium and magnesium, along came ALUMINUM. Aluminum is abundant in rocks, but oddly enough, we don’t use it at all in our bodies. In fact, acid rain can liberate so much aluminum from rocks and soil that plants are poisoned by an excess of aluminum. We manufacture aluminum into bright, shiny foil, into tinsel on Christmas trees. Aluminum is also used in airplanes, as it is a lightweight, yet strong metal. Oh, yes, aluminum is in the soda cans we recycle, yet we know that aluminum was initially smelted from aluminum-rich soil and rock, and before that it came from a star. We remember with awe that every atom of aluminum everywhere on Earth first came into being within the fiery belly of a giant star – a star that exploded long ago somewhere in the heavens.
_ 10. After hydrogen fused into helium and helium into carbon, thence into nitrogen and oxygen and sodium, into magnesium and aluminum, after all this came SILICON. Every igneous, metamorphic, or sedimentary rock – other than limestone – is built on a foundation of silicon. Every grain of sand on ocean beaches, every clump of clay on the continents, is built on a skeleton of silicon laced with oxygen atoms. Like aluminum, silicon is of no use to living cells. We do not eat rocks or slurp sand. But some creatures do use it for support or protection. Microscopic diatoms and radiolarians in the sea extract dissolved silicon from seawater and fashion it into crystalline snowflakes as their homes. Grasses and equisetum horsetails thrive on sandy soils, where they can mine silicon from the earth and then embed it like sandpaper into their outer skin, to discourage animals from eating them. We remember with awe that every atom of silicon everywhere on Earth first came into being within the hot belly of a giant star – a star that exploded long ago somewhere in the heavens.
_ 11. After hydrogen fused into helium and helium into carbon, thence into nitrogen and oxygen and sodium, into magnesium and aluminum and silicon, after all this came PHOSPHORUS. Phosphorus is crucial to life. Phosphorus is the P in ATP – the energy molecule of life. When plants extract energy from the sun, where do they store it ready for use? Not as a dazzling sparkle of light tucked into a pocket of cell, nor as a jumpy photon from the sun, but in a sturdy molecule of ATP. When you digest and extract energy from food, do you store tiny bits of bread or bacon in your cells? No! Just like plants, you too, store energy in the chemical bonds that attach phosphorus to a molecule of ATP. Phosphorus is crucial to life. We remember with awe that every atom of phosphorus everywhere on Earth first came into being within the fiery belly of a giant star – a star that exploded long ago somewhere in the heavens.
_ 12. After hydrogen fused into helium and helium into carbon, thence into nitrogen and oxygen and sodium, into magnesium and aluminum and silicon, and then into phosphorus, after all this came SULFUR. Elemental sulfur, in its pure solid form, is bright yellow, like the yolk of an egg. Sulfur bubbles up in hot springs and volcanic mud pools. Sulfur atoms are abundant, too, in the hydrocarbon reserves within earth – it is embedded in coal; it attaches to molecules of crude oil. So when we burn hydrocarbons for fuel, some of the sulfur turns into sulfur dioxide, a form of pollution. Sulfur is also vital to life. Of the twenty kinds of amino acids that combine in different ways to form all the proteins in our bodies, two of them contain sulfur. But we get so much extra sulfur from the plants we eat, that it is never in short supply. That’s why sulfur isn’t put into vitamin tablets. We remember with gratitude that every atom of sulfur everywhere on Earth first came into being within the fiery belly of a giant star-a star that exploded long ago somewhere in the heavens.
_ 13. After hydrogen fused into helium and helium into carbon, thence into nitrogen and oxygen and sodium, into magnesium and aluminum and silicon, and then into phosphorus and sulfur, after all this came CHLORINE. By itself, chlorine is a deadly poision. That’s why we pour liquid chlorine into swimming pools in trace amounts – it kills bacteria. But combined with a far friendlier element, it becomes one of the tastier things in life. Best known as the companion of sodium, chlorine is the other half of a molecule of salt. We remember with astonishment that every atom of chlorine everywhere on Earth first came into being within the fiery belly of a giant star – a star that exploded long ago somewhere in the heavens.
_ 14. After hydrogen fused into helium and helium into carbon, thence into nitrogen and oxygen and sodium, into magnesium and aluminum and silicon, and then into phosphorus and sulfur and chlorine, along came POTASSIUM. Potassium is a crucial element for life. Our brains cannot function without it. Released in our urine and sweat, potassium must be replenished, else we grow faint. And so we eat a banana, an apple, or many other sorts of fruits and vegetables that pack in a lot of potassium. Where does the potassium in a banana come from? From the soil, and before that from potassium feldspar in granite and many other kinds of rock. Plants take potassium up through their roots. Like sodium, potassium is never found as a gas, so it stays within soil, river water, and sea, never going up into the sky. We remember with awe that every atom of potassium everywhere on Earth first came into being within the fiery belly of a giant star – a star that exploded long ago somewhere in the heavens.
_ 15. After hydrogen fused into helium and helium into carbon, thence into nitrogen and oxygen and sodium, into magnesium and aluminum and silicon, into phosphorus and sulfur and chlorine, and yet again into potassium, along came CALCIUM. Oh, we know calcium! This is the element that makes for strong bones – and for strong eggshells and clamshells. The milk of mammals contains abundant calcium to ensure strong bones in the young who suckle on their mothers. But plants, too, provide us with calcium – figs and broccoli and kale. We remember with gratitude that every atom of calcium everywhere on Earth first came into being within the hot belly of a giant star – a star that exploded long ago somewhere in the heavens.
_ 16. After hydrogen fused into helium and helium into carbon, thence into nitrogen and oxygen and sodium, into magnesium and aluminum and silicon, into phosphorus and sulfur and chlorine, and yet again into potassium and calcium, along came IRON. We know iron as the primary metal, extracted from rocks, that goes into making steel, and steel in turn is shaped into bridges and the beams of tall buildings and into the bolts and nails that hold the beams together. Iron is heavy and gray and strong – but when exposed unprotected to the oxygen in air it degrades into reddish-orange and powdery rust. Iron is vital to life. Iron, in the presence of oxygen, is what makes our blood red. Our blood is the color of rust, as the iron at the center of a hemoglobin molecule latches onto oxygen for delivery to each and every cell in our bodies. The hemoglobin molecule in our blood is very similar to the chlorophyll molecule in plants – but our hemoglobin contains iron at the center, whereas plant chlorophyll has magnesium at the core. We remember with awe that every atom of iron everywhere on Earth first came into being within the fiery belly of a giant star – a star that exploded long ago somewhere in the heavens.
_ 17. With the creation of iron, the giant stars that once burned in the heavens soon ran out of fuel, as iron cannot easily be fused into anything in a way that produces heat and light. One by one, the giant stars STOPPED BURNING as they ran out of fuel. One by one, the ancient stars accumulated iron in their core. Gravity now took over, and each star began to collapse, and collapse, growing denser and denser and denser. Suddenly, the core of the star grew so dense, and the heat and pressure within became so extreme, that the star rebounded in an explosion of inconceivable power, a supernova explosion. The explosion rekindled the forces of nuclear fusion, forging iron into all the heavy metals. And all this happened so very quickly. In an instant, iron was turned into cobalt and nickel and thence into copper and zinc. Then came gallium and arsenic, selenium and bromine. Krypton and rubidium, zirconium and molybdenum, palladium and silver. Denser and denser elements collided into existence. Near the end of the collapse came platinum and gold and quicksilver mercury, and finally lead and heaviest of all stable elements: bismuth. Heavier radioactive elements, like uranium, would be created in these cosmic cauldrons, too, but some of these survived for no more than a instant before decaying into simpler types. The remaining elements were thus created in a single burst. For a few weeks this supernova star burned brighter than the combined energy of all the hundred billion ordinary stars in the rest of the galaxy. During this time, and continuing on, all the chemical elements once contained within the star were launched into space. We remember with gratitude that every atom of copper and nickel and silver and gold and mercury and lead everywhere on Earth first came into being within the fiery belly of a dying star – a star that exploded long ago somewhere in the heavens.
_ 18. After a supernova explodes and its brightness diminishes, those vanguards of elements thrust into space sometimes encounter vast clouds of hydrogen gas. Teaming up, the gas and the rich assortment of elements may swirl yet again into A NEW STAR. But this time, the star may be encircled by planets, because now there is solid matter as well as hydrogen gas. Our sun is one such next-generation star. And Earth is one such planet, composed entirely, with the exception of hydrogen, of stardust released from dying, supernova stars. We remember with delight that every atom everywhere on Earth, except for hydrogen, came into being within the fiery belly of a giant star – a star that exploded long ago somewhere in the heavens.
_ 19. So WE HAVE REMEMBERED the primordial hydrogen gas, out of which every substance imaginable would later issue forth. We have remembered helium and carbon, nitrogen and oxygen, sodium and magnesium, aluminum and silicon, phosphorus and sulfur and chlorine, potassium and calcium. We have remembered the dense, dense iron. And we have remembered too, the sudden change in the elder stars, the collapse and rebound that fused together heavier elements still: cobalt and nickel, copper and zinc, gallium and arsenic, selenium and bromine, krypton and rubidium, zirconium and molybdenum, palladium and silver, platinum and gold, mercury and lead and bismuth. We remember the power and brilliance of supernova explosions, the sending forth of elemental gifts, and their swirling together once again into our own star system, the solar system. We know that every element in our bodies is at least five billion years old. Each atom may once have been in a cloud or in the ocean deep. Each atom might have cycled through trees and flowers many, many times. This atom might have swum through the ocean as fish, another flown through the air as bird or butterfly, yet another resided in the rippling muscles of a mighty dinosaur. We know we are star stuff. And we rejoice in this story that teaches us our shared, celestial roots.
Acknowledgements: We are grateful to Paula Hirschboeck and V.V. Raman for assistance with the Buddhist paragraph, and to Larry Edwards and Ron Olowin for help with the science component of supernova explosions.
A FEAST OF ELEMENTS To Unite All Peoples and All End-of-Year Celebrations (1/8/02)