As much as I respect Calvin and Hobbes, I deg to biffer. As a boy, I, much like Calvin, was enthralled by the notion of things blowing up. And as time went by and I was actually party to things being blown up, be they model rockets whose payloads included gunpowder found in long forgotten shotgun shells or a limp balloon filled with hydrogen from a sixth grade experiment with electrolysis (remember that, Tom?), I was taken by how things were reduced to bits in the process. Several decades later this reality hit me during a discussion of how the big bang theory might fit in with the story of creation. Yes, the big bang theory supports the idea of the universe beginning at a definite moment in time, but from there the theory has lost its luster over time.
In theory, what eventually constitutes the universe we all know and love existed in a point smaller than an atom (though it is mathematically impossible for this much matter and energy to occupy a space that tiny even if the matter within that point consisted of nothing but neutrons) which in a trillionth of a second exploded and expanded to nearly its current size. At this point in time the universe is roughly 91 billion light years from edge to edge, but it is expanding. To have reached the size it did after the initial expansion, it must have expanded at a speed well above that of light, a speed which General Relativity insists cannot be exceeded. So there, take that, Einstein!
Then in a flash of light and energy the universe exploded into being. But it took a while for things to settle out and start to look familiar. The accepted explanation for how things shook out is called The Standard Model, which explains the universe as we see it as the product of natural forces. These natural forces took the shape of an enormous nebula that was 97% hydrogen and 3% helium. This gas nebula, in accordance with the Ideal Gas Law, disbursed and broke up into smaller nebulae. The Ideal Law states that gas in a vacuum will dissipate rather than join together. This point takes on greater meaning at the formation of stars and such.
While nebulae are pretty to look at, colorful and of interesting shapes and all, they aren’t of much use when trying to find a place to build a house. In that case, how do we arrive at solid matter?
It begins with gravity, but there are issues even with this first presumption as gravity, of the four forces at work in the universe (the others being electromagnetic forces and the strong and weak forces that hold atoms together), is easily the weakest of the four. Odd that the weakest force in the universe gets credit for accomplishing so much work in the universe. Anyway, gravity, centered in the middle of a nebula, begins to consolidate the hydrogen and helium of the nebula, compressing it into something more solid, or at the very least less gaseous. The source of this gravity, which we experience only on something as massive as say a planet, is not explained in this model. It is merely assumed to be the force at work. As things continue to coalesce in the middle of the nebula, mass increases and gravity increases, causing the outer portion of the nebula to be pulled into the mixture. As this process, called accretion, continues, friction between atoms results in a buildup of static energy causing microscopic dust and ice to cluster together. Now ice implies water, which requires more electrons than the number available from either hydrogen or helium. And how do we get dust from such limited resources? Notice how they toss in tidbits to make the story sound plausible or at the very least more interesting? Robert Heinlein referred to this as the unexpected detail which made his stories so interesting. My favorite example was “The door dilated”, a detail deftly offered that gave you the sense you are in a work of science fiction because doors in our time and place do not dilate as the iris of a camera does to open. If it sounds interesting,, suspension of disbelief kicks in with ease.
I suppose a detailed discussion of the subject of dark matter is in order, but then no one knows what or even if it is. This matter would act as a sort of cosmological missing link that would explain gravity and allow the standard model to operate as is presumed, but because we don’t have a beaker of the stuff to examine empirically, all dark matter is is a place-holder until someone comes up with a better vehicle to explain all the incongruities of the Standard Model.
As compression continues, this mass of swirling gas begins to rotate at ever-increasing speeds. The gas consists mainly of hydrogen protons. So how were they able to determine they were hydrogen protons and not protons from livermorium (http://www.privatehand.com/flash/elements.html )? Protons have a positive charge, and as any kid who has ever played with two magnets knows, like charges repel. Not a good scenario for the formation of worlds. But as things compress and heat up (rub your hands rapidly together to get a sense of how this works), the protons move fast enough to overcome that repelling force. When protons collide at a high enough rate of speed under sufficient pressure, fusion occurs. When two protons fuse, they eject a positron, a photon and a neutrino, which combine to form helium. This process results in a release of a lot of heat, which leads to more such fusion and creation of helium, and helium combining with hydrogen is what is thought to be the engine our sun runs on. After a million years of such reactions the fusion reaches the surface of the swirling mass and both light and heat are produced.
At this point we merely have a proto-star. If the proto-star’s gravity pulling toward the core balances out with the forces of fusion reactions pushing outward, you may end up with a star. If they don’t balance out, things may merely fall apart.
This is the recipe for a star under The Standard Model. Next time out I will share my ‘issues’ with this commonly accepted scenario.