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 common incredible history.

When I see Objectivists smugly dismissing religious beliefs or arguments about Intelligent Design they take the easy cases: the fundamentalists who argue from pure faith. I believe Objectivists need to acknowledge that some religious people are driven by a deep dissatisfaction for the explanation of how stardust self-assembled into life. I’m sure some religious folks are motivated by whim worship, as Rand would have put it. However, from my own experience many have concluded there is a God based on what they believe is evidence, not blind faith. At the very least I feel we need to acknowledge -- and even have awe for -- the amazingly complexity of life.


Anonymous said...

Why the same star ?

Could we not be made of dust from more than one star ?

Henry Scuoteguazza said...

True, we don't necessarily all come from the same star. Although as I understand it the heavier elements that comprise us come from a nova and that novas don't occur frequently. However, my broader point is that we are made of the ashes of a former star which to me is an amazing and fascinating fact.