We Are Made of Stardust
Toward a New Periodic Table of Elements
Compiled by Connie Barlow
April 2003

  • "Thank you for spending so much time with us. You were so energetic. It was unbelievable that we are 13 billion years old! and that we are made out of stardust. It makes me feel like a Goddess. I don't like it. I love it." — Love, Eileen, a student at a Montessori school in Minneapolis.

  • "Thank you for telling us that we all are 13 billion years old. When you said I am made of star dust, I was very happy because I like space and I want to be part of it. I feel like a alien. Please please please come again." — Love, Liza, a Montessori student

  • PERHAPS THE DEEPEST SPIRITUAL CONNECTION to the vast Universe that science has given us is an awareness that ancestral stars are part of our genealogy. We can now know and feel our connection to the heavens, for stars are among our ancestors. Every atom in our bodies, other than hydrogen, was forged in the fiery belly of a star who lived and died before our own star, the Sun, was born.

    LISTEN to Neil deGrasse Tyson
    speak on the spiritual significance of the science of stardust.

    "Stars mimic living systems. They are born, live to maturity at metabolic rates determined by their masses, and die, spewing forth the matter by which their stellar offspring can take form. Throughout, they convert the light atoms of their birth into the heavier ones dispersed at death. The chemicals that constitute our beings were manufactured in the bowels of stars that today exist only as memories." — George A. Seielstad, "Cosmic Ecology," 1983.

    When the Siberian chemist, Mendeleev, conceived The Periodic Table of Elements around 1870, he catalogued atoms according to the number of protons in each nucleus and grouped the elements by chemical properties. This was a huge achievement. It has been the basis for the science of chemistry ever since. Today, however, we have an opportunity to construct another version of the Periodic Table of Elements — one that can highlight where each element arose.


    This awareness of atomic origins was made possible by scientific discoveries beginning in the 1920s and culminating in the late 1950s and 60s. You can access online Synthesis of the Elements in Stars, which is the classic, 1957 technical paper. Also, a contemporary technical presentation: The Evolution of High-Mass Stars. Wikipedia recounts the history of this understanding in the topic Stellar Nucleosynthesis. Each year new discoveries flesh out even more details, enhancing our appreciation of stellar ancestors and the cosmic recycling of atoms.


    1. The Highlights
    2. A New Periodic Table of Elements (by mode of origin)
    3. Elemental Origins (of the most familiar chemical elements)
    4. Stellar Longevity v. Creativity + CHART
    5. More Details on the Sequence of Stellar Nucleosynthesis

    Note: Stellar nucleosynthesis is a complex process to understand. The author will happily correct and update this file when errors are brought to her attention.

    1. The Highlights

    Learning The Story of Stardust ("Stellar Nucleosynthesis") can elicit awe and wonder in a number of ways. Before moving into more detailed explanations of astronomy and chemistry from which the story is drawn, here in brief are the points that elicit the most "Wow" responses:

  • Almost all the atoms of HYDROGEN within water, within our bodies, and everywhere else on and within Earth are more than 13 billion years old.
  • If many of the atoms within us are 13 billion years old, and as "we" are our bodies, not just our minds, then, in a way, WE TOO ARE 13 BILLION YEARS OLD.
  • Almost all of the HELIUM was formed at the birth of the Universe by the fusion of hydrogen and the free neutrons. ALL THE OTHER CHEMICAL ELEMENTS were forged from the primordial hydrogen and helium by nuclear fusion inside of stars that flared forth and died before our Sun was born.
  • We are made of STARDUST — recycled stardust!
  • We are star stuff, PONDERING the stars.
  • Humans are star stuff evolved to the point that it can begin to know and marvel at its own magnificent STORY.
  • Our ANCESTORS include ancient stars. Stars are part of our GENEALOGY.
  • HELIUM is the only chemical element within Earth that was created right here (from decay of radioactive elements).
  • OUR SUN, when it is dying, will contribute CARBON back into the galaxy — perhaps for future generations of living planets to make use of.
  • Most of the NITROGEN cycling within the Earth system was forged in the bellies of RED GIANT STARS.

    Red Giant stars Antaries in Scorpio, Betelgeuse in Orion, and Arcturus "arcing" from the Big Dipper actually look reddish to the naked eye.

  • Our scientific understanding of the origin of CALCIUM in our bones is as fantastical a story as the notion that one might combine the contents of a child's balloon (HELIUM) with grains of sand (which include SILICON) and voila! There be calcium! Yet this is precisely what happened inside an ancestral star.
  • The build-up of complex atomic nuclei from the simpler comes to a dead halt with IRON. Iron builds up in the core of a star.
  • Every atom of IRON within our blood was at one time inside the core of a star and gumming up the works, so to speak.
  • As more iron forms, the star cools, becomes less luminous, and then gravity takes over. Everything collapses, then rebounds in a SUPERNOVA EXPLOSION.
  • All of our "precious metals" (GOLD, SILVER, PLATINUM) were created in that supernova explosion.
  • When a single star explodes as a supernova, it shines brighter than 100 galaxies for several days, and it remains BRIGHTER THAN ALL THE STARS IN A SINGLE GALAXY for about 3 or 4 months.
  • The more MASSIVE a star is, the faster it "burns" — and thus the SHORTER ITS LIFE. The biggest stars may live for only 50 million years.
  • Stars SMALLER than our Sun may live for hundreds of billions of years and create nothing more complex than helium.
  • The greater the CREATIVITY of a star, the shorter its life.

    ABOVE: Click the image above for the wikipedia site where you can learn about it.

    The rest of this document is available only in PDF format. You can easily download it by clicking HERE.

    If you plan to offer a stardust workshop or conduct a stardust ritual, you might wish to distribute to participants a 1-page flier, which can be downloaded HERE.

    A powerful comparative illustration of a neuron in a brain and astrophysicist's computer simulation of how the galaxies formed: http://1.bp.blogspot.com/_CD0JETuihEE/SRitMQdRsDI/AAAAAAAAD3M/Nw5TuVeywQQ/s1600-h/neuron-galaxy.jpg

    A companion to the full PDF document is a scientifically rigorous but poetic rendering of the forms and uses of each of the most familiar elements, especially those crucial for life. This document can be accessed directly on this website. Simply scroll down to the element-by-element description in our "Feast of Elements" document.

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