How Carl Sagan immortalized the theory by Hans Bethe on television

May 18, 2021 0 comments
Hans Bethe Starstuff contemplating the stars Carl Sagan

Astronomer Carl Sagan popularized the phrase "We are made of star stuff" when he said: Nitrogen in our DNA, calcium in our teeth, iron in our blood and carbon in our food; were made in the interiors of collapsing stars.

However, most people wouldn't know the name of that scientist who actually found it out. It was German American physicist Hans Bethe (1906-2005) who wrote it in a paper titled "Energy Production in Stars" as early as in 1939.

In 1930s, at the time when European scientists were debating quantum mechanics, Bethe migrated to United States and contemplated the stars. He thus became the first person to figure out that conversion of hydrogen into helium was the primary source of energy in a star.

The process is called nuclear fusion in which many nuclei combine together to make a larger one. It so happens that the resultant nucleus is smaller in mass than the sum of the ones that made it. So, by virtue of Einstein's equation E=mc², the mass is converted to energy.

When a star would eventually run out of hydrogen (its primary fuel) it would start converting helium into carbon, nitrogen, oxygen and so on, in order to keep itself hot.

However, those reactions themselves will halt at some point and the star would no longer be able to support itself against its own gravity and it will die in an explosion.

Therefore, it was proposed that most of the material that we're made from, came out of the dead stars which spewed out those chemical elements into the universe for further use. Hence, we are made of star stuff.

Bethe's groundbreaking paper not only helped in understanding the inner workings of the stars but also solved the age-old questions like: 'How do stars shine?' 'Where did the chemical elements come from?'

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He won the 1967 Nobel Prize in physics for this theory of stellar nucleosynthesis. Bethe would continue to do research on supernovae, neutron stars, black holes and other problems of astrophysics well into his late nineties.

Carl Sagan Hans Bethe Cornell Astrophysics
Carl Sagan and Hans Bethe share the stage at Cornell

Now, Carl Sagan, who was earlier at Harvard University, joined Cornell in 1976 and became immediate colleagues with Hans Bethe who had been at Cornell since coming to America in 1935. While Bethe was a professor of physics, Sagan was a professor of Astronomy.

It was unfortunate that the general public still did not know about stellar nucleosynthesis despite Bethe discovering it some 40 years ago and winning the highest prize for it a decade ago. Carl Sagan changed this.

Their common interests in science and politics brought them even closer. Bethe was also a fan of Sagan's 1980 show Cosmos: A personal voyage. In one of the episodes, when Sagan said "We are made of star stuff", he immortalized Bethe's work in television history.

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