If a star dies in the universe, does its supernova make a noise?
One is perpetually in a state of unknowing. It is an unavoidable, inescapable, unfortunate and fortunate truth regarding one’s mind. Unfortunate because its implication is the fact that in the quest for complete knowledge, one will never get there. Fortunate because without it one would never start.
There are no words that can sufficiently describe the ridiculous enormity of the cosmos—of space. Truly, it is an understatement to declare that it is difficult to understand the distance and time involved when observing an object at the very edge of the observable universe in regards to one’s own position—and then, when one thinks one has finally comprehended the distance, to turn 180º and observe another object at the opposite edge of the observable universe. One cannot help but wonder to oneself, “I cannot imagine how far apart these two objects are from me, let alone how far apart these two objects are from each other.”
The size of the universe cannot be overstated. Ever. One can never ever overstate the size of the universe. Stating that one can never overstate the size of the universe itself cannot be overstated, and it is fundamental that this idea is properly appreciated—a word I use in stead of understood. No morpheme or word can encapsulate the emotion of merely the slightest approaching of understanding the vastness of the universe, and while only numbers can describe the universe, numbers are emotionless. A number does not describe an emotion.
You are stardust. Stars had to be born, and eventually die, in order for you to be.
There is an overarching disrespect and lack of appreciation for astronomical phenomena throughout much of humanity, which is unfortunate but not entirely unpredictable. Of course, most past civilizations have had some astronomical knowledge, from the Maya and Inca in the Americas, to the Ancient Egyptians and Greeks in the Old World, to the Chinese and Indian civilizations in the East—however, such knowledge was only of interest to priesthoods, nobility, aristocrats, and the like—persons in relative power that needed not physically toil in fields to guarantee they wouldn’t die of starvation during leaner times. The detachment from quotidian life and the difficult-to-comprehend nature of cosmological space makes public understanding of it, and, almost more importantly, sentimental public appreciation of it, lacking; looking at stars doesn’t put food on the table.
However (and a tremendously important however), it does produce MRI machines, important for improving human health. It does produce GPS devices, important for human transportation. Along with the others sciences, and the interdisciplinary relation among them, not only does it improve humanity from a technological standpoint, it produces as well an appreciation for the aesthetic the universe has to offer, be it from the visual candy that are nebulae and galaxies, to the mental banquet regarding the mathematics of it all. Without attempting to comprehend the universe the world we live in would have so much less, for it is in the quest and attempt to comprehend our universe, from firstly this seemingly flat and lonely terrestrial universe, to later the more celestially populated cosmological universe, to then the biotic and quantum universes, that tangible benefits and intangible pleasures arise for the good of all.
You are stardust. Stars had to be born, and eventually die, in order for you to be. Much of the elements and atoms that make up your organism weren’t formed in the beginning of the universe. They were not formed by the Big Bang. They were formed in the incomprehensibly hot plasma cores of stars—and not merely in hot plasma cores of stars, but in explosive star death.
It is unfortunate that certain terms have had their meanings, and importance, somewhat diluted, and perhaps it’s because we’re taught, or at least first hear of, such terms when either too young or too unlearned to appreciate them. A child does not respect fire, often has to be told that if one plays with fire, one will get burned, and occasionally must learn the difficult way, to respect fire. Or does not respect a pet, and is followed by a quick bite to to the hand, or claw to the face. Similarly, while the dissemination of knowledge is fundamentally important, there is a drawback of such disseminations at such an early age, which is desensitization and lack of respect toward the idea.
When the first scientists came to discover phenomena of the universe, as adults, they were experienced enough and learned enough to appreciate, and even occasionally fear, the results and findings they encountered. To have discovered black holes must have been, for the most part, unsettling for scientists—whereas a child would take the term at its face value, and not sufficiently appreciate the significance of a black hole, let alone supermassive black holes.
The lack of appreciation: Thinking a rainbow after a flood, the valley in between mountains, a frozen waterfall, or the wailing scream of an harlequin infant is a sign or manifestation of God, while they do not think that the very stars in the sky had a part to play in their own creation. Not thinking, nor appreciating, the possibility that “the atoms in your right hand came from a different star than your left hand”, as Lawrence Krauss so candidly stated. The lack of appreciation of how unbelievably bright supernovae are—and unbelievably bright in the literal sense, for you cannot see all the colors of radiation emitted by the explosion—an explosion brighter than entire galaxies. The thought experiment of “if a tree falls in the forest, and there is no one to hear it, does it make a sound?” is pathetically and hopelessly inferior to the thought experiment of “if a star dies in the universe, does its supernova make a noise?”
And so you are stardust of this supernova. Whilst the majority of the elements comprising your organism were formed in the core of stars, other elements, important elements, were not, and could only be formed during the last instants of a massive star, during its death as a supernova. Of equal importance, none of this essential matter could have been scattered across the galaxy to seed other stars and solar systems had they not exploded—and one of those elements is iodine.
The element iodine. Iodine deficiency is the leading preventable cause of mental retardation among humans and a leading cause for mild mental impairment, with an approximate lowering of IQ scores by 10 to 15 points, potentially afflicting two billion persons worldwide—an enormous number of persons. Iodine, an element of “paramount” importance, is one that isn’t formed in the cores of stars, but is a result of supernovae. It is interesting to think that for one to better appreciate the stars and the universe itself via knowledge and comprehension, one needs more stardust—and not any stardust, but stardust specifically from a dead, exploded star. Stardust is not merely what you are made of, but is itself important for you to comprehend it—and how this world might be different if those two billion persons with iodine deficiency were not deficient, and were healthier, more intelligent, and more receptive to scientific awe—scientific awe requiring intelligence, while religious awe having no such requirement.
Of course, whilst iodine deficiency, and making available iodine in nutrition, are not the only problem and solution toward general human ignorance (ignorance being a truly appropriate word), it is nonetheless interesting to think what incremental changes for the better would be had if the world IQ average rose a few, but precious, points. Perhaps more persons would be moved, as Krauss was, if they imagined the idea, “So forget Jesus; the stars died so you could be here today.”
The idea that humans are merely an attempt of the universe trying to comprehend itself is the most poetic idea in existence, for only through the deaths of its own creations can it learn to understand and love itself.