Comments and observations on social and political trends and events.

Monday, April 27, 2009

From the same star: reflections on our common roots

When I visited my mother recently she played an album, Vom selben Stern (From the same star), by a German group called Ich + Ich. While it has some catchy tunes, I especially like the title song for the thought behind it: that we’re all made from the same ashes of a former star, that we all share a common heritage going back much further than whether we evolved from apes. This idea has intrigued me for years. The chemicals that we are made of couldn’t have come from the cloud of gases that formed the Sun because the heavier elements like carbon, iron, oxygen, and etc. form only within stars that are much older. I’m sure I’m not doing this justice but stars go through cycles. Once they burn up most of their hydrogen the star collapses because the pressure exerted by the fusion reactions decreases, allowing the star’s gravity to temporarily win the battle. As the star collapses the pressure in the interior increases until it is high enough to start a self-sustaining fusion reaction of the heavier elements. This process continues until the star runs out of fuel. For smaller stars like ours it eventually turns into a cinder called a dwarf star. For a large star which generates larger gravitational pressure it can actually turn into a nova. The catastrophic increase in pressure tears the star asunder, spewing out the heavy elements that formed in its interior. Billions of years ago a star died, releasing it elements which were then captured by the Sun’s gravity to form the earth and the other planets. (See this entry on stellar evolution.)

This means we’re made of remnants of a star that died billions of years ago. In addition the earth is in a narrow band from the Sun in which the temperature is just right: much closer and the water would boil away, much further away and the water would freeze. (Some call this the Goldilocks Effect.)

I find this fascinating and amazing. Whether earth, life and consciousness are the result of design or of accidental clumping of chemicals the bottom line is the same: the staggering complexity of life and the formation of consciousness is a miracle.

I think if we kept this in mind we might look at life and our fellow humans a bit differently. I’m not saying that we’re a meaningless speck floating in the cosmos. On the contrary, we’re incredibly, marvelously complex creations with the capacity for self-reflection. I’m also not saying that we should accept people regardless of their beliefs and their actions. What I am saying is that we start with the premise that all of us are miracles and share this incredible history.

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