There’s nothing quite like looking up at the stars at night to get an idea of how small we are compared to the rest of the universe. The vastness of space is truly sublime to behold and very humbling, too. Somehow when you’re gazing up at the stars, some thousands of light years away, all of your petty, worldly problems seem to vanish into insignificance, if only for a few minutes.
Stars have fascinated humans since prehistory, and they remain some of the most beautiful and unique objects not only in the night sky — but in all of nature. Aside from being pleasant to look at, stars are absolutely awe-inspiring and actually much more important to the origin of life here on Earth than we might ordinarily think.
First of all, despite their appearance, stars are unimaginably huge. The sun, an average-sized star, is about a million times bigger than Earth in volume. It’s hard to visualize something this size, so let’s put it in perspective: If the Earth is T.J. Yates, the sun is Kenan Stadium. What looks like a small, albeit extremely bright object in the daytime sky is actually a ball of burning gas so massive that its gravity is more than enough to keep Pluto in orbit more than 3 billion miles away.
Also, the cores of stars are some of the only places in which nuclear fusion, the same process that generates the explosive power of a hydrogen bomb, occurs naturally. The sun generates an enormous amount of energy; each nanosecond, the total energy output of the sun could power the town of Chapel Hill for more than 100 years. This energy fuses the hydrogen atoms that comprise most of the sun into heavier elements.
In fact, this fusion inside the cores of stars is just about the only way elements heavier than helium can be formed at all. You may wonder, if the vast majority of matter we interact with is only made inside stars, how did it end up here on Earth?
If a star is massive enough, it will eventually exhaust its hydrogen fuel supply and explode in a spectacularly powerful event called a supernova. When a star explodes like this, its contents form an immense cloud of dust and gas, which may condense due to gravity, and over time form rocky comets, asteroids and even planets.
When you think about it, this is utterly astonishing.
Look around you. Look at the trees, the squirrels, Wilson Library, your friends nearby, your Chick-fil-A sandwich — all of this was, billions of years ago, inside the core of a star. The atoms in your body were all formed inside a star much larger than the sun, perhaps even several different stars, which then exploded so that you could be here today.
We are all literally made of stardust. And here you are, reading about it! It always amazes me to think that we are all intimate parts of the very universe we live in and study. In the words of Carl Sagan, “The cosmos is also within us … we are a way for the cosmos to know itself.”