Readers Write In #223: You and me are stars!! Wait. What?

Posted on July 17, 2020

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(by G Waugh)

Linklater’s films give me an easy start to plunge into a theme reducing the time I spend on staring at a blank sheet of paper.

You are both stars, don’t forget. When the stars exploded billions of years ago, they formed everything in this world

The first time I heard these lines in Before Sunrise I just couldn’t fathom how related we could be to something as distant and as alien as stars. It took months and months for me to get the ‘science’ behind it.

Even though you might all be aware of the connections we have with stars and space and the like, what I really want to describe here is how I managed to establish that connection on my own – my literal journey into the space. Having been raised in a political environment among trade unionists and communist journals, I right from my childhood wasn’t so much interested in news relating to space and satellites. Whenever I used to come across headlines boasting about India’s achievements in space, it was natural for me to think that India being home to millions of homeless people cannot really afford to have an independent space programme. If it did, I assumed it could be nothing more than a fountainhead of jingoism built at the expense of the poor taxpayer.

To call a starving man free, is a huge blunder’ remarked Nehru.

While Nehru’s socialistic leanings fascinated me as I grew up, his fondness for science and research sounded pretty hollow to me, initially. When he became Prime Minister, he was instrumental in encouraging atomic research, establishing institutes of technology and finally India’s premier space organization ISRO.

Even during my early adulthood, movies related to space barely attracted any interest from me. A few years after I had finished a good number of novels, I got hold of Stephen Hawking’s so-called masterpiece- A Brief History Of Time. I came across the name from our Rajnikanth’s film Endhiran when the protagonist Vaseegaran is accused of being ‘romantically unfit’ by his girlfriend Sana for giving her a series of unromantic gifts for her birthdays, one of which is a copy of the Hawking classic.

When I think back, I cannot sufficiently explain my aversion towards space apart from the foolish common assumption that there is nothing that really links man to outer space and that man’s fascination with it is merely diversionary arising out of his appetite for expensive indulgences. This is one solid illustration of the fact that people in general, especially the most opinionated ones have an uncanny ability to develop strong and vehement positions on things which they literally know nothing about.

Here is not the place to explain or review Hawking’s masterpiece. I started the book on a very skeptical note skimming through equations and hypotheses as quickly as possible with a sole intent to finish the book and dismiss it as useless junk. The idea of the proverbial Big Bang, where the entire universe is assumed to have begun from a point of infinite density something smaller than the size of your closed palm was for the first time revealed to me from these pages. And the fact that man used the properties of photon wavelengths to ascertain the possibility of an expanding universe began to grip me. I remember one place where Hawking throws a totally incredible fact at your face that when viewed through a telescope, a star or a galaxy that you see at that point of time is actually the image of what it was a million years ago. This fact was something that literally hooked me and I started rummaging through Wikipedia to know more about it.

A man like me who was born just thirty years ago on this planet could literally look at the state of stars and galaxies the way they existed millions of years ago was an idea that I simply could not really get out of my head. If this is not a kind of time travel, what is it then?

The fact that photons that emanated from stars located millions and millions of miles away from us take millions of years to reach us enabling us to look at how those stars looked aeons ago provides the explanation for the phenomenon. This was the starting point for my own ‘journey towards the space’.

A few months later, I was going through the pages of Richard Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene which visualized a hypothetical ‘primal soup’, an imaginary setup that existed billions of years ago which had all the necessary ingredients for the creation of ‘replicators’ or DNA- the building blocks of what we call life. It was a stunning hypothesis on the mysterious origins of life on this planet which is beautifully developed further and further by Dawkins as we leap across the pages.

In the immeasurable vastness of this Universe, life is something that happened on account of merely an accident’

Vaseegaran utters these lines to his robot en-route to its transformation into a ‘flesh and blood’ automaton in Endhiran.

Just as Dawkins had mentioned, there were a million probabilities that existed in the course of a throbbing primal soup, and the conception of life could easily have failed to happen leading to a dead and largely uninhabitable planet similar to many of our own peers in the solar system. The origin of life is the biggest accident that could have happened in the history of the universe and the fact that that really happened has unfortunately obliterated all the awe and bewitchment that such a phenomenal happening deserves to be met with.

But my search for the beginnings of the universe remained incomplete with Hawking and Dawkins. I wanted to know whether there were some other theories that could bridge our gap with the stars.

That brought me to a few other books one of which was written by the famous Neil DeGrasse Tyson. The book primarily focuses on the life-cycle of a star which I initially assumed would have no relevance to the origins of life. While describing the processes of nuclear fusion occurring inside a star like the Sun, Tyson argues that the lightest element in the world, Hydrogen which initially abundantly occurred in nature combined with another atom of the same to form a new element called Helium with two protons. This fusion reaction not only required a lot of energy to happen but also released a massive quantity of energy prompting the fusion of two more hydrogen nuclei. This process of thermonuclear fusion as it is called continued unabatedly absorbing and releasing tremendous amounts of energy leading to a chain of nuclear fusion reactions forcing even the two-proton-heavy Helium to combine with another free atom of Hydrogen to produce Lithium and so on. This process leads to the accretion of more and more nuclei to form newer elements found in the periodic table. When Carbon with atomic number 6 was formed, Tyson contends that it might have assisted in the creation of life on account of its being the most dominant element in the composition of all life forms ever found on this planet.

Tyson argues that this chain of unabated thermonuclear reactions form the basis of Sun’s energy and the exhaustion of the same on one fine day, millions of years after the first one began, will lead to the star collapsing under its own weight forming a huge black hole after passing through a series of intermediary stages pulling ultimately all other neighboring planets and celestial bodies into itself with its enormous gravity.

We can never really know how many black holes and stars and supernovas were created and consumed in the process of forming the ball of debris called the Earth and this question will continue to haunt the imagination of man as long as he manages to stay on it. But the mind-blowing fact that stars played a major role in the genesis of you and me and everything around us, isn’t that a sufficiently huge reason why we must all undertake our own journeys towards the space?