The Autobiography Of Carbon: Birth And Finding A New Home (Part 1)
By on June 5th, 2011

It had come upon my being, whether fortunately or unfortunately, that I was born in the core of a massive star in the Milky Way Galaxy. I was christened Carbon’, because I looked like one with six protons and six neutrons. (The naming is a family thing; everyone in the family has the same name). I was given pride of place in the Periodic Table, four places to the left from the right on the second row. I was small, but proud of my six positive charges. This is the story of my life so far, immortal as I am. Kindly, dear human reader, read on!

A Violent Birth

I was a small nucleus, called Helium. Little did I know that I would grow in size. You see, within my kind, you grow by collisions. If I was supposed to become the bigger Beryllium (Be), I would have to collide with a Helium nucleus (snazzily nicknamed Alpha’). The catch is that a successful collision is extremely rare, even though the number of collisions itself is very large. Call it social pressure or anything else you like, but even though two alphas want to be together to form a more stable beryllium, they don’t come together because of their repulsive ego-like charges. Having a successful’ collision is a difficult and a lucky business. I was lucky!

So I did become Be. This was the first step towards adulthood, the next would be becoming what I’m now! That would require a greater amount of luck, and energy. The further constraint in this next conversion step was that the stable me cannot be formed by just colliding Be with alpha. The collision had to come very soon after becoming Be. I was lucky again! I soon got a good enough collision with an alpha and formed a more excited state of my present self (Ref. Hoyle State of carbon and Triple Alpha Process). Only a few of my Be brethren had got this far! I felt proud; relaxing by releasing a couple of photons. And that’s how I came to be. Or so they said!

The Triple Alpha Process. The wiggly lines represent energy emitted in the form of photons. Notice the absence of the wiggly lines when the Beryllium fuses with the Helium.

I was now Carbon!

Blast and my journey through space

I sat for a couple of billion years at the core of this star. (Time flies so fast when you’re 50 million Kelvin hot, that you don’t notice.) Then, suddenly enormous pressure built up. My surroundings went a bit dark. The temperature increased. A new batch of reactions started over. Some of my Carbon brethren got converted to Oxygen and then Neon. I escaped the fate. The pressure continued to build up. Then, all of a sudden, it released. I was swept out into space I’ve never experienced such a rush. Streams of ions followed. The outward force was enormous. The giant star, my home, was dead. The elders say that it was the Supernova.

The star exploded in a fantastic explosion, called a supernova.

Initially, I got shocked by the static medium outside the stars. I was forced to slow down. My journey across the cosmos had, however, begun! I was now in the Interstellar medium.

I looked back at my old home it was still simmering, but just a glimpse of its old majestic self. The sea of ions propelled out was still being pushed out by the angry star. I would later know that it would become a neutron star. I rode the stellar wind out into space.

Space is the most horribly frigid place you can imagine; I was cooled to my neutrons. However, due to the plethora of electrons in the medium surrounding the stars, and my six positive charges, I attracted six electrons, which began revolving around me in specified orbits. I was feeling more complete as Carbon. One of the greatest friendships had begun! A great new number of possibilities opened up.

My New Home And A New Life

I got dragged by the wind and landed in a whirling gas of rocky materials on the outskirts of the Milky Way. I knew enough to know that planetary formation was going on! Maybe, this was my new home, my destiny! I settled on the third rocky mass from the star called the Sun! Earth as it was called would be my new address in the cosmos.

I saw comets rain down upon Earth carrying ice and water, which gave this nascent planet raging water bodies. I was up in the atmosphere. I was associated with two atoms of oxygen, forming carbon dioxide. My electrons had started showing their magic the magic which would, in a few million more years, produce the greatest miracle in the Universe Life.

Comets rained down on the Earth and brought water

The ground was not hospitable. I rained down, weakly associated with a molecule of water. Flowing down a deep dark crevasse, I landed up in a hot cave. The surroundings smelled of raw sulfur. I flowed down and out into a large water body. I was in the forming oceans. I would idly sit here, for a billion years or so, after which my life would explode with activity. The greatest miracle was happening in front of my eyes. I was soon going to be a part of it. I was soon going to be a part of Life!

Stay Glued  For The Second Part

In the concluding second part, I will reveal the various paths that I’ve taken throughout the eons through the shell of a shellfish to the trachea of a Brontosaurus and onto the teeth of a T-Rex. I’ve traveled continents by simply riding them as they moved. I’ve shaped muscles, I’ve been a part of the design of intelligence and I’ve been lucky to know how all of this really started off. Hang on for the second part; it’s the greatest story ever told!

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Author: Debjyoti Bardhan Google Profile for Debjyoti Bardhan
Is a science geek, currently pursuing some sort of a degree (called a PhD) in Physics at TIFR, Mumbai. An enthusiastic but useless amateur photographer, his most favourite activity is simply lazing around. He is interested in all things interesting and scientific.

Debjyoti Bardhan has written and can be contacted at debjyoti@techie-buzz.com.

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