“We are stardust, we are golden, we are billion-year-old carbon”

“We are stardust, we are golden, we are billion-year-old carbon” January 6, 2018


Looks like Provo!
A scene in the English Bible Belt town of Oxford   (Wikimedia Commons public domain)


Extracted from Alister E. McGrath, Surprised by Meaning: Science, Faith, and How We Make Sense of Things (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011):


One of the most significant scientific discoveries of the last generation is that the universe was pregnant with the possibility of human existence right from its very start.  The laws of nature seem to be “fine-tuned” in order to make life possible.  As we noted in an earlier chapter, the early universe produced nearly nothing other than hydrogen and helium.  Yet the chemistry upon which life depends is ultimately the chemistry of carbon, and there is only one place in the whole universe where carbon can be created: inside stars.  If the fundamental constants of nature were not what they actually are, stars might never have formed.  The heavier elements on which life depends — such as carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen — were all created within stellar cores.

So how are we to account for the origins of life?  Nobody really knows the answer to this question.  What can be said, however, is that biochemically critical elements such as carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen did not form, and could not have formed, in the early history of the universe.  Their existence is the consequence of the “clumping” or “accretion” of material into stars, with the subsequent initiation of nuclear fusion reactions.  Carbon is essential to life.  Yet its origins depend totally on how the universe developed after the big bang.  The ratio of the gravitational binding force to rest-mass energy is such that it permitted the gradual “clumping” of material into larger bodies: the stars.  Stars form as a result of turbulence in giant clouds of matter within the tenuous interstellar medium.  All the heavier elements of the universe, from carbon upward, are believed to be the result of nuclear fusion within stars, and not to be a direct outcome of the primordial fireball.  Without the formation of stars, the universe would have been limited to hydrogen and helium, with only a tiny percentage of other elements, such as lithium and beryllium.

The nucleosynthesis of carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen must therefore be regarded as essential to the emergence of life.  (66-67)

To be continued.


“We are stardust,” sang Crosby, Stills, and Nash (and, before them, the song’s composer, the great Joni Mitchell).  “We are golden.  We are billion-year-old carbon.”


They were literally right, of course.  Except that they put the age of our carbon quite a bit too low.


By the way:  I’ve been ridiculed, of late, for my embarrassing scientific ignorance and for my invariable dependence, in my blog entries regarding science, on a comical assortment of flakes, charlatans, and pseudo-scientists.


I hope that those leveling the accusation aren’t referring to the various Nobel laureates that I’ve often cited here, or to people like Francis Collins, Hans-Georg Gadamer, F. A. von Hayek, Ian Hutchinson, and my former California neighbor Allan Sandage.  But, since those are the kinds of people to whom I mostly refer on scientific subjects, it seems that they are.  Wow.


So here’s the background on Alister McGrath:  It’s true that he’s an Anglican priest and that he’s a theologian at the notoriously anti-scientific obscurantist Bible college called “Oxford University,” and it’s true that he holds Oxford doctorates in the non-scientific fields of theology and intellectual history.  Before those, though, he had also earned a D.Phil. — alas, again from the lowly University of Oxford, that infamous hotbed of ignorant cranks — in molecular biophysics.




My friend and neighbor Tom Pittman, a Native American from Alaska, kindly called this interesting item to my attention a few days ago:


“Alaskan infant’s DNA tells story of ‘first Americans'”


Some critics of the Church, by the way — not Tom — are hailing it as yet another nail in the coffin of the Book of Mormon.  I confess that I can’t see why.



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