The Tale of Yttrium

The Tale of Yttrium

The Science

You know the elements of the periodic table? Hydrogen and carbon and all those? They had to come from somewhere, right? Hydrogen and helium formed in the Big Bang when quark-gluon plasma cooled into solid matter. But these light elements only have a proton or two in their nucleus. What about the heavier elements? Protons don’t like to stick together – their positive charges repel them from each other – so you really need a lot of energy to get them to bond into a nucleus.

That’s where stars come in. Stars are atom factories. Really massive stars can use gravity to form carbon, oxygen, and iron in their cores. But the heaviest elements, like gold and uranium, can only form in supernovas, when stars explode (or even better, when neutron stars collide). Light elements fly off at a good fraction of light speed, and smash together so hard that they stick together like so many cosmic burrs.

So the gold in your ring or necklace formed in an exploding star long before our planet formed. It flew through space and was incorporated in the cloud of gas and dust that formed our solar system, eventually winding up on Earth. Then we dug it up and made jewelry out of it.

Fitting, I suppose.

These elements are an eternal part of our universe. They’ll continue to be recycled into planets and comets long after the Earth is incinerated by our sun ten billion years from now, releasing them back to interstellar space. Some of those elements are part of your body right now.

So what would it be like to be one of them? To be born in a star? Settle on a planet? Pass through a life form? Then escape into space billions of years later?

Let’s find out.

 

The Fiction

Part I. Birth

A star died on my birthday. The ancient red giant could no longer sustain itself. After endless millennia, its fuel was gone, exhausted by the fierce inferno of its life. The fire inside died. Its core hardened into cold metal instead of the explosive ball of youthful heat. The dead heart couldn’t repel the crushing gravitational force of its massive outer shell. In a single catastrophic moment, the shell of plasma imploded, smashed against the iron core, and then rebounded into space with a colossal explosion.

My newborn cousins and I flew into the void. The blast spread us in all directions and we grew more distant until I was finally alone. I felt no passage of time being immortal. I felt no motion being surrounded by emptiness. The tiny points of light would slowly change position, though, and only then did I realize that I passed through space, or space was passing me by.

Where am I going?

Part II. Ignition

I never knew loneliness because I had always been alone. I travelled so far that I could no longer sense the remains of my home. The points of light had changed completely. After a journey of endless time, I sensed the presence of another: tiny, a fraction of my mass, and so at ease with the universe that I knew it wasn’t my kin. It hummed in time with the cosmic background as if a part of the ethereal void itself. It moved slowly, complacently, and I flew past, still endowed with the energy of my explosive birth.

I was not alone. The universe was not empty.

I crashed into a cloud of particles so thick that even my tremendous velocity could not pierce it. I became enmeshed in the rolling fabric of the cloud. I collided constantly with the elemental particles of its matrix, trading and imparting energy until I resonated violently. The central bulging mass tugged me closer with some unseen force. Just when I thought the atomic collisions would tear me apart, a great pressure wave blew past us, washing the lighter elements to the far reaches of the disc-shaped cloud, and leaving many of us heavier ones near the center.

Then light filled the darkness and warmth saturated the remains of the cloud.

I had seen my star die. Now a new one had been born.

Is this what all those pinpricks of light had been, a map of the heavens?

I gazed into the starlit sky, and realized how utterly vast the cosmos really was. I didn’t feel amazed. Not yet. Not for another five billion years would I be capable of that emotion.

Part III. Coalescence

I tried to bond with others, but it never worked. I didn’t fit. Groups of other elements could interlock and dance as a single molecule with a vibration all its own, but I was destined for independence. I would not be alone, though. I could join the dance as an onlooker – intertwined but never incorporated. My energy would not mesh with theirs, but I could exist in the space between. This is where I lived as chunks of matter condensed from the cloud and smashed together into a ball of rock that would eventually become the Earth.

A nascent planet is a volatile place – rivers of molten rock, eruptions of pure acid, clouds of rolling steam – but I felt no discomfort as they tossed and carried and blasted me around. I was a slave to the natural forces of the universe. I could not choose my path. I was simply carried along. I would flow in a river of lava, in the slow crawl of its dense fluid, and then it would harden and I’d be captured in the rock. Rain would weather away the obsidian pillow eons later, and carry me in a turbulent river to the newly formed oceans, where I would float for thousands of cycles. Rarely, but occasionally, I would be caught in the evaporating mist, and that was the closest I came to exaltation: to be carried into the sky, float on the fluid air, dance in the clouds, and then rain down again, just for the cycle to begin anew. This was my life and I knew nothing else, only the push and pull of gravity, pressure of heat, and turbulence of motion. Everything behaved that way. It always had, ever since my birth.

Until the Earth awoke.

Part IV. Emergence

The land has cooled. The steam has settled. The rain is clean. The Earth itself resonates with harmony in the universe, and I am a part of it.

We had developed a rhythm, my compatriot elements and I as we flowed across the landscape.

Then I stumbled. Something was in my way. It should have washed away by the same river that caught me after a storm. But it stood resolutely, unmoved by the friction and kinetic energy of the moving water. It had long tendrils that reached into the ground and held it in place. It had a vibration that I had never felt before in the familial elements and molecules I’d always known. It was different.

It was life.

Though vulnerable to the forces of nature, it was not slave to them. It swayed in the wind that tossed me. It absorbed the rain that washed me away. It reveled in the sunshine and slept in the night.

It grew, reaching for the star above as if it could actually hold its light. It absorbed the elements and reconfigured their individual vibrations into a melody. Alone or as molecules, we could only ring a single tone. This life could sing! Its vibrations changed throughout its life, throughout the day, through each passing moment. If it caught fire, it cried. If dry, it thirsted. In rain, it laughed. And in sunshine, its song exploded with joy.

It was everywhere, more diverse than all the single elements taken together.

I was once absorbed into a plant. It sucked me in as I rested in the moist soil. I immediately heard its daily song. The plant had no use for me – I passed through as a guest – so I could not contribute to the melody, but I could listen and oh the comfort of that sensation! To be a part of something that could create and act instead of simply respond and react like me.

My time inside was much too short. Each piece of life was so transient! Some lasted no more than a single cycle. As they grew larger and reached higher, they could persist for many cycles, but still just a mere moment in the span of my own existence, as fleeting as a gust of wind.

Why couldn’t their songs last forever? Why didn’t they grow and stay? After I had been formed, I remained immortal to the passage of time. They rose and fell in an instant. Nor was their song sad when they fell! Why?

Then I saw: they left something behind. They would collect certain elements into small pods. From these pods sprung the next verse of their song – a continuation of the melody, slightly different than the parent, and more adapted to the continuously changing world in which they lived. By this method, they adapted and grew stronger. They thrived.

But not all life was sedentary. There were the creatures. They did not sing like the plants. Their vibrations were wild, discordant with the universe and yet harmonious in themselves.

They had developed a trait that would allow them to eventually take over the world: self-determination.

Plants appreciated life. Creatures craved it.

Fought for it.

Killed for it.

Part V. Sentience

The song of each creature is unique. They each sing their own melody. They do not sense the universal harmony.

I wound my way through more than one creature. I would be resting in a leaf, listening to the parent melody, when the song would be wrenched apart and then cease. And then I’d be inside them, coursing through their veins. The plants accommodated me. The creatures could not wait to be rid of me. I did not fit these organisms. I did not contribute to their functions either, but anything non-essential was not tolerated. Their rhythms were focused on a single purpose: individual survival. Cooperation was a means to an end. Their songs were not universal vibrations; they were snarls, growls, roars, and barks. The songs they cast into the air were to satisfy their own carnal cravings – to satiate their hunger, promulgate their reproduction, to hunt their prey or hide as such.

As an outside listener, I could not understand the motivation of creatures. They lived in fright and fear, reacting as if each moment was their last. Even the compassion they felt when together as families – for I have been inside of a parent while it cared for its young, and could sense its rhythms – was fleeting. A mere sound would send them into flight, or induce them into bitter fighting. How are these reactions concordant with the universe? How could they not sense the consciousness of the planet beneath them? How could they bear to silence the song of the greenery? How could they rely on the consumption of other life for their own survival?

I did not want to be a part of them, so when one consumed me hundreds of millions of years after my first trip through vegetation, and after endless rounds of incorporation and rejection through the creature kingdom, I had but a single thought: not again.

Then I was not rejected. Nor I was not incorporated – still I had no function – but I was tolerated. So long as I did not interfere with the song, this creature would allow me to stay.

Slowly, reluctantly, I began to sing too, caught in the passion of this new creature, one whose thoughts were born of a deeper mind. One who had evolved the ability to observe and learn, to perceive the entropy of the universe as a measure of time, and to dare to explore and imagine the pinnacles of happiness and the profundity of sorrow.

Its thoughts were vast, as if a single organism held the voice of thousands. It held a perception of time that no other creature had. It could sense the past and wonder about the future. It could see images of things to come. It could learn from its parents and ancestors, even after they had returned to their constituent elements. Never before had any creature had these abilities.

This perception of things past and yet to come is what set me free.

I absorbed this energy, this sense of time, and became unique. I began to sing. I remembered where I had been. I wondered where I would go. I thought of my parent star, and felt longing. I thought of the birth of this planet, and the fortune of its creation. I could have been cast by the shockwave of the Sun’s formation into the far reaches of the solar system and would have never experienced it, and I shuddered. I gave thanks for my existence. I promised that I would absorb every experience from now on as part of the cosmic rhythm. For even a chorus is comprised of individual voices.

Plants and creatures sing of the world.

Humans sing of the universe.

Part VI. Departure

I passed though a mere handful of people before their extinction. They had reached their neighboring planets. Survived war and famine. Settled into a sustainable relationship with themselves and their world. They flourished. They acknowledged the sentience of the other creatures and spared their lives. They cared for the lush plant life, conserved what their ancestors had ravaged, and gave thanks when they consumed it for nourishment. The plants understood, for their offspring were allowed to continue their glorious song, and that was all that mattered.

The comet that decimated the humans’ home world had sent ripples of discord through the solar system during its collision course. But it, like me, was a slave to the universal song. It had been ricocheted out of its distant orbit around the Sun. It pulled at the planets as it flew past, and they shrugged back. It cringed at the flares and machinations of the humans, but was too immense for their weaponry. I could sense it approaching the blue-green Earth that I had come to call home, long before it impacted. And I could hear the lamentable cries of the humans. Even on the outer worlds, they could not survive without their home planet. They had wanted to gain an independence – such was the wonder of their imaginations – for they strived for more distant stars. That was the future, but they were not there yet. They all still needed the resources of home.

They’re gone now. Since them, many forms of life have inhabited this world – floaters of air and water, single plants as large as continents, barely sentient slimes, carnivorous critters and crawlers. None had the ability of the humans to sense time and imagine things beyond their own existence. They lasted only a short time in the history of this planet, and they tried so hard to become what they were, but they could not combat the universe. If only they knew how many elements they had influenced. Sometimes I find myself next to another who had felt their unique song, and we remember and are grateful.

Now the yellow sun has turned red. It fills the sky and has burned away the life. The oceans boil. The land melts. How like birth is death. This sun will not explode like mine, but it will disintegrate my home and cast me into the void once again.

I look into the sky.

Where will I sing next?

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