Book: The Disappearing Spoon
Exhibit: Art Work
As a first year Chemical Sciences with Medicinal Chemistry student, the periodic table always fascinated me, ever since my very first science class. I often wonder about the story of each element, how it was discovered, who discovered them and why are they placed in such an interesting way. Through this book assignment, I have found something compelling.
I did my painting based on a supernova. This one in the background shows the remains of RCW 86, the oldest recorded example of a supernova. This massive, violent explosion takes place at the end of a star’s life cycle. This is key to understanding the origin of elements.
Stars are filled with hydrogen and helium gas, and they are extremely hot in their core. Hot enough that a nuclear fusion reaction takes place, where tiny atoms of hydrogen (the smallest, simplest atom) create bigger and bigger atoms. Hydrogen has one proton and helium has two. These elements slam together and they make lithium which has three protons. And then beryllium and carbon. As the stars get energy out of this, they shine.
Eventually all the hydrogen in the core gets used up and so the star dies, distributing all the new atoms and elements created in the star back into space. From this, a second generation of stars is formed from mostly hydrogen and helium but also with a little bit of carbon, continuing the process of fusion to create the next six elements in the periodic table, up until magnesium. And then the cycle continues to produce more new elements up to iron, the very element that makes our blood red when combined with oxygen.
For more massive stars that are about 5-10 times the mass of the sun, they go supernova, creating every atom larger than iron. So any element in your body heavier than iron has travelled through at least one supernova, from a violent star death.
This is essentially how the elements were formed. The same elements you and I are made of. We are carbon-based beings with bones made of calcium and iron in our blood and we breathe oxygen. The late astrophysicist Carl Sagan said it more poetically: “We are made of star stuff”. And it is quite literally true.
I chose to read The Disappearing Spoon written by Sam Kean (full title is The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements). The periodic table is one of the first things that comes to mind when you hear the word “chemistry”, and before reading this book, I did not have much knowledge about the other elements besides the most common ones. What inspired me to create my exhibit is the fourth chapter, titled ‘Where Atoms Come From: “We Are All Star Stuff”’. Reading the title of the chapter sparked my curiosity for two reasons: 1) I had no idea where atoms truly come from, and 2) I love everything that has to do with astronomy. I have always enjoyed watching films and reading books about space. In another life I would be studying to become a NASA astronaut. Unfortunately, I am not the biggest fan of physics.
In this chapter, the author talks about the elements iron, neon, lead, iridium and rhenium and how they play a part in the theories of the origins of elements. He introduces the famous 1957 paper called B2FH that explains the stars and the elements they created. He then discusses the formation of gas giants and rocky planets, but the supernovas particularly intrigued me. Not only are they such big and violent explosions, but they are also very bright and colourful and so I thought I would try painting one of these beautiful explosions. It is quite remarkable that the saying “We are all made of stardust” is actually true and I felt that others would enjoy learning the chemistry of the famous quote as much as I did.