Dive Dry with Dr. Bill

#319: Proving We are "the Stuff"

When I first arrived on Catalina on the dive boat Golden Doubloon to teach at Toyon Bay, I was thrilled at the opportunity the island presented for teaching science. The headmaster who hired me, John S. Iversen Jr., had given me free reign to develop a science curriculum appropriate for our setting. We both believed in using the "natural laboratory" of the island to teach science. In my years in high school and college biology classes, I could only remember two field trips, one to the undeveloped tract of land across from my high school and the other to dredge Boston Harbor for boots, tin cans and other "marine life" in those heavily polluted waters. Although my teacher and professors were excellent, I was determined not to teach the way I was taught... mostly in a classroom.

I quickly went to work developing the two courses I would teach in marine biology. My lab looked out on the ocean, but we used it largely for the lectures. The "laboratory" work was done in our local waters as much as possible since the majority of the students at the school were SCUBA certified. I wrote my own textbooks to reflect the island's ecological systems which were the basis for instilling an understanding of biology. During that first year it became obvious that the island's unique geology offered an opportunity to develop a field-oriented course and a fantastic geologist/sailor, Jack McAleer, was hired the following year. Eventually the science curriculum expanded to include courses in the physics and chemistry of the ocean and atmosphere, field ecology, animal behavior, evolution and many others.

One of my favorite new courses was astronomy. I had always had an interest in the subject dating back to junior high school when I took my first photographs through a telescope of the planet Mercury transiting across the face of the sun. During my first school year at Toyon, I read an article entitled "Proving We Are the Stuff of Which Stars Are Made" which turned out to be a very important one in my philosophical and scientific development. In it the author outlined the process whereby stars are formed and later explode as supernovae, scattering the elements formed in its core throughout its stellar neighborhood.

While reading this article, the connection between all the science courses I wanted to develop was established. According to the theory of stellar evolution, the earliest stars formed out of the simplest of elements like hydrogen and helium of which the primordial Universe was composed. Those with a rudimentary knowledge of biology realize that life on Earth is carbon based. If carbon did not exist in this early Universe, how could life evolve? Read on...

According to our prevailing understanding of astronomy, the Universe was created in the Big Bang. According to that theory, the only elements existing after the explosion were hydrogen, helium and lithium. The earliest generation of stars coalesced under gravity and very high pressures developed in their cores. This led to increasing temperature as well. When it reached about five million degrees, these stars ignited and shone brightly thanks to the process of hydrogen fusion. When hydrogen atoms combined, they formed more of the heavier element helium.

As it ages, a star burns up its hydrogen fuel and releases light and heat energy (which themselves are critical for biological life to exist!). Helium builds up in its core and the increasing pressure heats up the interior until helium becomes the fuel for fusion. Temperatures increased to over a billion degrees, and other elements such as carbon, oxygen, nitrogen and iron were formed through the process of nucleosynthesis. To reach such high temperatures, a star must be several times larger than our sun. Once these lighter elements fuse into a core of iron and nickel, the process runs out of fuel. At this point, the star is near its death stages and contracts further until it violently explodes as a nova... or supernova in the case of much larger stars. During this process, the elements heavier than iron and nickel are formed, and all the elements created by these processes are scattered into the stellar neighborhood.

These elements are all critical for life as we know it to evolve. Therefore planets like Earth on which life evolves must coalesce later in time, after the earliest stars have exploded. It is believed that the sun and its planets formed when matter from earlier stars came together due to gravity. Once this happened, the stage was set for the creation of life on planets like ours. It is interesting to note that images of planets similar to Earth have finally been taken. Previously they had been inferred due to their gravitational effects on their own stars, but now we have proof they exist. Perhaps these planets, some of which are Earth-like in terms of temperature, have evolved life forms on them as well. Of course in my mind, how could they not! After all, I've been in touch with my "brothers" and "sisters" on the planet Xanadu since I was a young tike. They told me they hoped to visit our planet in the not-too-distant future. However, for some reason they haven't discussed their food preferences with me yet. Gulp!

So the evolution of my science curriculum years ago helped formulate my philosophy on life in the Universe. In my second year the donation of a telescope to the school allowed me to teach astronomy utilizing the often clear skies of Catalina. In the course sequence, students then took geology, physics and chemistry of the environment and then field ecology. Those wishing to go on beyond this basic level could take the courses in marine ecology, evolution, or animal behavior in addition to standard physics and chemistry. For those who may wonder, I don't see any of this being contradictory to the concept of a Creator. As a humble marine ecologist, those questions are well beyond my measly pay grade!

I find great wonder in the progression from fundamental particles to stars to geology to living things and ecological systems. There is not only great beauty in this, but great mystery as well... which is what makes scientists like myself eager to continue our investigations of the Universe. This past weekend I had the pleasure of sharing my telescope with a "brilliant" new dive buddy... and discussing the progression from fundamental particles to life itself. As John Steinbeck once wrote after his voyage through the Sea of Cortez with my marine biologist icon Edward "Doc" Ricketts, "It is advisable to look from the tide pool to the stars and then back to the tide pool again." It sure puts a lot into perspective for me.

© 2009 Dr. Bill Bushing. Watch the "Dive Dry with Dr. Bill" underwater videos on Catalina Cable TV channel 49, 10:00 AM and 5:00 PM weekdays and on Charter Communications Cable channel 33 at 7:30 PM on Tuesdays in the Riverside/Norco area. Please help me climb out of self-imposed poverty... buy my DVD's (see this link). Yes, take Dr. Bill home with you... we'll both be glad you did!

Images of astronomical regions where star formation and death are occurring...
and the ultimate result of "star" formation!

This document maintained by Dr. Bill Bushing.
Material and images © 2008 Star Thrower Educational Multimedia