Friday, June 19, 2015

Iron Skillets are the Reason You Exist

I had an interesting discussion with a chemist today. They talked about how at one point had the entire periodic table of elements memorized, could recognize molecules in peoples names, and could rattle off most of the information on the periodic table without too much trouble. So I thought I would take a shot at stumping them.

"Do you know where all of the elements on the periodic table came from?" I said. They looked at me somewhat puzzled. "What do you mean where did they come from?" I could see the confusion on their face. Maybe this is the first time they have ever thought about this, maybe they just assumed that these things just always were. But, that's not the case.

I also had a feeling the person, even though trained in chemistry, may not know the answer to this. The reason is because origin of the elements on the periodic table is not rooted in chemistry, rather astrophysics.

The most abundant element in the universe is hydrogen, by far! Hydrogen makes up about 75% of the mass of the entire universe. The second most abundant element is helium, which makes up almost all of the remaining 25%. That means that elements 1 and 2 on the period table make up 99% of the entire mass of the universe. Elements 3-118 make up 1% of the mass. Without getting into any technical detail, it's evident that hydrogen and helium were the only 2 elements present at the time of the Big Bang (or formed within 10 minutes or so of the Big Bang through a nucleosynthesis process, to be pedantic). In laymen's terms, at the time of the Big Bang there was a LOT of really hot, intense energy, and within minutes the energy was converted into matter (specifically hydrogen and helium). For more information on how energy converts to matter and matter converts to energy, see Einstein's theory of relativity which conclusively demonstrated that energy is matter (E=M).

Great so now we have hydrogen and helium. Where did every other element come from? Take a guess... from hydrogen and helium. That's right, everything from carbon to gold to oxygen to iron to xenon comes from just hydrogen and helium. But how? How can oxygen become gold, etc?

The short answer is, it can't. Well, not on its own. Helium tends to stay helium and hydrogen tends to stay hydrogen thanks to electromagnetism. So when two differing atoms approach one another they don't fuse together, they repel sort of like the repelling ends of a magnet (well exactly like that, actually). What is required for atoms of two different type to overcome electromagnetic repulsion in order to fuse together and create a new element? A lot of heat and pressure. A lot.

Once you have enough pressure to force these atoms close enough past the point of electromagnetic repulsion, together they start trading protons and becoming new elements. Two hydrogen atoms (atomic number 1) form together to create helium (atomic number 2). A helium atom (2) combines with another hydrogen atom to form lithium (3). So on and so forth.

So where does this fusion happen? Mainly in 2 places; stars and supernovae. The core of a star is a nuclear reactor on a grand scale. The energy and heat given off from stars is the result of nuclear fusion happening in its core. It's hot outside today. Thanks nuclear fusion!

Atoms are being smashed together constantly inside of a star to create newer, heavier elements with more protons. Helium smashes together to become lithium, lithium mashes up to become beryllium, then boron, then carbon, then nitrogen, then oxygen, etc. Each time two atoms fuse, an obscene amount of energy gets released (literally an atomic bomb).

This process repeats, and repeats and repeats. So every element on the periodic table from hydrogen to iron forms inside the core of a star. And with every fusion the star continues burning like a champ. But when the fusion process gets around to iron, something lethal to the star happens. Iron atoms don't play nice. Iron does not fuse with other elements like its predecessors. When iron starts forming inside the star, it's a death sentence. The star stops losing the energy gained from fusion, because iron has caused fusion to slow down, and eventually stop.

Star Killer
Thanks a lot, iron. Forget the "Red Matter" from Star Trek lore. You want to destroy a star? Your iron skillet did that.

But you should be thankful to your iron skillet, without it you probably wouldn't be here. After fusion stops in a star, the star collapses onto itself. Stars that are the right size detonate into a supernova. Just about all other forces of nature stand in awe of the fury and power of a supernova. Whereas the fusion inside the core of star, literally cannot produce enough energy to fuse anything to iron, a supernova has so much energy it creates every element on the periodic table from number 27 to 118... all at once.

Mother Nature's way demonstrating your insignificance.
To give you some sense of just how much energy is released in a supernova, when a star goes supernova, it temporarily outshines every other star in its galaxy combined. That's right, take the light from a hundred billion stars and for a brief moment this dying star makes them all look dim. While it's doing this, it throws all 118 elements of the periodic table out into space. Including carbon and oxygen from which you are made.

The carbon atoms in your body used to be inside the core of a star, and thanks to iron threw that carbon out into space. And now, here you are. Probably cooking eggs on your iron skillet without even taking a moment to thank it for blowing up that star for you.

Enjoy your omelette.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

The Lowry Gambit

I’m a chess player. A few years ago I planned to attend a chess tournament in Charlotte, NC.  I announced to my chess club that I would be driving and invited others to ride along.  To my joy, two experts committing to coming with me. As a class player, I was very much looking forward to picking their minds for four hours in order to get some great advice on improving as a class player to ascend to the sacred ground of expert. This time spent would be invaluable.

Before I left, this weird, old guy whom I did not particularly care for mentioned he would also like to ride with us to Charlotte. This was disaster. This old guy, Paul Lowry, was a non-stop talker. He is the kind of guy who dominated a conversation and never let anyone get a word in.

Even worse, he was weird. He told the strangest stories and he had a lot of them. In fact, his weird stories came non-stop.  The trip, which looked so promising at first, fell into the hands of disaster with the inclusion of Paul.

The four of us were making our way up to Charlotte and my annoyance was already brimming from the outset. The guy would not shut up. On our way back, I found myself snickering at a few of his corny jokes.

The next time this quarterly tournament came up in Charlotte, Paul invited himself along again. This time it was just the two of us. I was not particularly looking forward to this trip.  By the end of our four-hour round trip I was convinced that Paul was an amazing guy who had some fantastic stories to tell.

Paul was a retired firefighter who relayed some fantastic stories about some beautiful young women who loved firefighters. He told me about his background in history and philosophy. Paul told some stories to me about moonlighting for the mafia when he was much younger and stronger. 

Paul was a historian and loved chess history. He could recite any number of significant chess tournaments in history and the impact they had on opening theory.  Paul had memorized amazing stories about chess players and their failures and triumphs on the board. Paul had regular correspondence with GM Yasser Seirwan who referred to Paul as the finest chess historian he had ever met.

Paul was also a writer and had poetry published. He was also a real ham. He used to tell people all the time, “You know Fischer would never play me. He always avoided me for years.” To which people would inevitably respond, “really?” Paul would always cooly respond, “Yep. Herb Fischer, that scoundrel would never play me.”  He was a jovial guy who loved people and would even offer people draws when he had a winning position out of kindness. Paul cared nothing about his rating. He cared only about brightening people’s lives.

Paul had a very extensive collection of really obscure chess books, and a lot of them signed by the original authors. His vast collection of out-of-print books were easily worth thousands of dollars.

He relayed a story to me once where he sat down with an opponent and told his opponent, whom he had never met, “I’m in a bad mood today. And if I lose, one of us is going to get hurt, and it won’t be me.”  Later in the game his opponent was up two pawns and offered Paul a draw. Paul said, “why on Earth are you offering me a draw, you’re clearly winning!” The guy responded, “I just don’t want any trouble from you man.” Paul laughed and said, “I was only joking with you! I resign.”

As mentioned before Paul was a real talkative guy, and everyone knew it. He had a reputation as a talker, but once you got past his idiosyncrasies he really was awesome to be around. Once at a very large tournament that I personally organized, Paul’s cell phone went off right in the middle of the round. What was hilarious was that his ringtone was “Ramblin’ Man” by the Allman Brothers. So imagine a completely silent room and then all of a sudden, “Lord, I was born a ramblin’ man!” Paul quietly stood up and walked out the room. One of the tournament directors had to calm him down because he was so upset that he had offended everyone by allowing his cell phone to go off. The truth was that as soon as he left the room everyone erupted in laughter because they understood the irony of Paul having a ringtone entitled “Ramblin’ Man.”

It was now I who was picking up the phone to call Paul to invite him along with me to tournaments. I had developed a real liking for Paul and the two of us entered a team tournament together last year and finished in second place out of eight teams.

Paul donated his entire collection of books to his local chess club when he tragically passed away on June 17, 2012 after a bout with cancer. I visited him twice in hospice where we relived some of our favorite memories together. A month later, I delivered a tear-filled eulogy honoring Paul at the 2012 Columbia Open Chess Tournament.

Paul taught me that life is worth nothing without people. It’s easy to get caught up in getting better at chess, improving your rating but it all means nothing without making someone’s life just a little bit better because you were a part of it. I miss Paul dearly, and I think about every time I move a chess piece. So every time I sit down at a board, Paul’s memory and influence remains and I’m astounded at how close I came to making up some excuse not to take him to that first tournament.  Had I done that, I would have saved a little aggravation but missed out on having a marvelous friend. Chess players know that our most important lessons come with each loss, and I certainly learned a whole lot when I lost Paul. 

Monday, June 8, 2015

Life is Strange

"Everyone's the hero in their own story," is a phrase I heard recently and have been reflecting on, and it's true. In everyone's mind, they're not the bad guy. Everyone is trying to do the right and honorable thing. Often times our intentions create a massive blind spot for us to properly assess our actions and behavior. As humans, we are excellent prosecutors for other people's actions, and excellent defense attorneys for our own.