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Starts With A Bang

The scientific story of how each element was made

Think the periodic table is complicated? Now learn how each element in it was created.

“It is the function of science to discover the existence of a general reign of order in nature and to find the causes governing this order. And this refers in equal measure to the relations of man — social and political — and to the entire universe as a whole.” –Dmitri Mendeleev

There are over 100 elements in the periodic table, of which 91 are naturally found on Earth.

The primary source of the abundances of each of the elements found in the Universe today. A ‘small star’ is any star that isn’t massive enough to become a supergiant and go supernova; many elements attributed to supernovae may be better-created by neutron star mergers. Image credit: Periodic Table of Nucleosynthesis / Mark R. Leach / FigShare.

But at the moment of the Big Bang, none of them existed at all.

The early Universe was full of matter and radiation, and was so hot and dense that the quarks and gluons present didn’t form into individual protons and neutrons, but remained in a quark-gluon plasma. Image credit: RHIC collaboration, Brookhaven.

After the first second, quarks and gluons cooled to form bound states: protons and neutrons.

As matter and antimatter annihilate away in the early Universe, the leftover quarks and gluons cool to form stable protons and neutrons. Image credit: Ethan Siegel / Beyond The Galaxy.

After three minutes, the hot Universe fused those nucleons into helium and a tiny bit of lithium, but no further.

The predicted abundances of helium-4, deuterium, helium-3 and lithium-7 as predicted by Big Bang Nucleosynthesis, with observations shown in the red circles. Image credit: NASA / WMAP Science Team.

After tens of millions of years, we finally formed the first stars, making additional helium.

An artist’s impression of the environment in the early Universe after the first few trillion stars have formed, lived and died. Lithium is no longer the third most abundant element at this point. Image credit: NASA/ESA/ESO/Wolfram Freudling et al. (STECF).

Massive enough stars become giants, fusing helium into carbon, also producing nitrogen, oxygen, neon, and magnesium.

The color-magnitude diagram of notable stars. The brightest red supergiant, Betelgeuse, is shown at the upper right. Image credit: European Southern Observatory.

The most massive stars become supergiants, fusing carbon, oxygen, silicon, and sulphur, reaching the transition metals.

Fusing elements in onion-like layers, ultra-massive stars can build up carbon, oxygen, silicon, sulphur, iron and more in short order. Image credit: Nicole Rager Fuller of the NSF.

Giant and supergiant stars create free neutrons, which can build up nuclei all the way to lead/bismuth.

The creation of free neutrons during high-energy phases in the core of a star’s life allow elements to be built up the periodic table, one at a time, by neutron absorption and radioactive decay. Supergiant stars and giant stars entering the planetary nebula phase are both shown to do this via the s-process. Image credit: Chuck Magee /

Most supergiants go supernova, where fast neutrons get absorbed, reaching uranium and beyond.

Supernova remnants (L) and planetary nebulae (R) are both ways for stars to recycle their burned, heavy elements back into the interstellar medium and the next generation of stars and planets. Image credit: ESO / Very Large Telescope / FORS instrument & team (L); NASA, ESA, C.R. O’Dell (Vanderbilt), and D. Thompson (Large Binocular Telescope) (R).

Neutron star mergers create the greatest heavy element abundances of all, including gold, mercury, and platinum.

Two neutron stars colliding, which is the primary source of many of the heaviest periodic table elements in the Universe. About 3–5% of the mass gets expelled in such a collision; the rest becomes a single black hole. Image credit: Dana Berry, SkyWorks Digital, Inc.

Meanwhile, cosmic rays blast nuclei apart, creating the Universe’s lithium, beryllium, and boron.

Cosmic rays produced by high-energy astrophysics sources can reach Earth’s surface. When a cosmic ray collides with a heavy nucleus, spallation — producing lighter elements — occurs. Three elements are made by this process more than any other in the Universe. Image credit: ASPERA collaboration / AStroParticle ERAnet.

Finally, the heaviest, unstable elements are made in terrestrial laboratories.

Updating the periodic table, Albert Ghiorso inscribes “Lw” (lawrencium) in space 103; codiscoverers (l. to r.) Robert Latimer, Dr. Torbjorn Sikkeland, and Almon Larsh look on approvingly. It was the first element to be created using entirely nuclear means in terrestrial conditions. Image credit: Public Domain / US Government.

The result is the rich, diverse Universe we inhabit today.

The abundances of the elements in the Universe today, as measured for our Solar System. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons user 28bytes.

At last, each element’s primary origin is known.

The most current, up-to-date image showing the primary origin of each of the elements that occur naturally in the periodic table. Neutron star mergers and supernovae may allow us to climb even higher than this table shows. Image credit: Jennifer Johnson; ESA/NASA/AASNova.

Mostly Mute Monday tells an astronomical story about an object or phenomenon in this Universe is pictures, visuals and no more than 200 words.

Ethan Siegel is the author of Beyond the Galaxy and Treknology. You can pre-order his third book, currently in development: the Encyclopaedia Cosmologica.


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