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Joni and the Stars Print-ready version

by Rolf Parker
Keene Sentinel (NH)
March 8, 2018

"We are stardust
Billion-year-old carbon.
We are golden
Caught in the devil's bargain.
And we've got to get ourselves
Back to the garden."

- "Woodstock" by Joni Mitchell

When I first heard Joni Mitchell sing this song, accompanying herself with a tremolo-ed Wurlitzer electric piano, I was moved by the idea of being "made of stardust," without thinking much about whether it was literally true.

While she wasn't writing a science essay, she was more than half right. We are made of ancient, cosmic dust. Some of that dust originally came from the first explosion, the Big Bang, which released matter into the void in the form of the lightest elements: hydrogen, helium and lithium. (Of those, only hydrogen and lithium are found in human beings.)

The origin of the elements is covered in great detail in an amazing episode of "NOVA," with the easy to remember title, "The Origin of the Elements."

"We are all star dust," says host Neil deGrasse Tyson. "The carbon in our bodies, iron in our blood, the calcium in our bones."

He explains that all the heavier elements, up to and including iron, were formed in the fusion furnaces of stars, and all the elements heavier than iron were formed in the super-hot furnaces of the supernovas, the exploding stars, that strew their elemental products into space. Mix in some more gravity and a lot of time, and matter attaches to matter, and you get planets, including Earth, where human bodies evolved out of whatever suitable materials that were available.

Carbon and oxygen together account for more than 80 percent of the human body, and if you throw in the nitrogen, phosphorous, calcium and iron, you can account for about 90 percent of the ingredients needed to make us. The nerd in me might contemplate rewriting Joni's song so that it reads, "We are mostly composed of stardust and, to a lesser degree, dust that originally came from the Big Bang and then formed the stars that exploded in supernovas," but that would sort of destroy the rhythm of the lyric and would be a form of literary vandalism. We won't tamper with perfection.

Is your middle-schooler learning about the periodic table of elements? Do you remember much about it? For a highly informative, clickable periodic table, check out the online version created by Jefferson Labs, at education.jlab.org/itselemental/ele026.html.

Skipping over how life came into existence, and the next few lines of Joni's poem, we arrive at the garden. Besides the peace and beauty which Joni was referencing (and which one could argue, are deeply needed), all living things need a source of energy, and a source of matter to create new cells. We call this special matter "food."

As a high-school student, I was taught that all the energy in food came from the sun. But since 1977, scientists have known that some life forms living in the darkest depths of the ocean, are completely independent of sunlight.

There are tubeworms there that live off the energy bacteria have collected from chemicals spewed from volcanic vents. More recently, researchers at Aarhus University in Denmark, who were studying material from the ocean's crust, discovered "chemosynthetic" bacteria living inside rocks. Who knew ?

Aside from tubeworms and other chemosynthetic organisms, the rest of us rely on photosynthesis for energy. We all run on converted sunshine. Even wolves and other flesh-eaters are as dependent on the sun for energy as any rabbit or cow. The wolves steal the energy from rabbits (or more rarely, cows).

The cows and rabbits, of course, stole the energy from plants, who managed to capture some of the light energy from the sun and convert it into chemical energy in the form of sugar. Plants also make other energy storing molecules, such as proteins and fatty compounds, like olive oil, in secondary reactions.

To get that energy out of the plant material (or animal flesh), we have to rip it apart, first with our teeth and then with acids in our stomach. Sometimes, we can't digest food without converting some of the carbon, hydrogen and nitrogen we stole from plants back into a gas.

One of the stinky gasses we are capable of making is hydrogen sulfide. If you have been living as a hermit and are lucky enough to not know what that smells like, and would like to, try lightly cooking a rotten egg sometime and inhale deeply through your nose.

Another problematic gas is methane. Besides embarrassing you with its noisy escape from your body, methane may help make swaths of the planet uninhabitable. This is not due its smelly nature.

Methane is odorless, though often mixed with other gasses. However, methane traps heat, and does so many, many more times as effectively as the carbon dioxide that comes out of the back of your car. Methane is a major greenhouse gas.

According to a Royal Society of Chemistry webpage, researchers found that only about 33 percent of people regularly make methane. But humans (even the ones who aren't lying when they say they never pass gas), are still responsible for the production of enormous amounts of methane on planet Earth.

This is because humans are the only reason that millions and millions and millions of cows are bred into existence, and all cows, with their four-chambered stomachs, always produce methane when they digest grass. Grass is hard to digest - that's why it takes four stomachs to get the sunlight energy out of each meal of hay.

Solid grain also gets turned into gas. Mostly the cows burp it out. (One can only hope it tastes as good to the cow as beef tastes to humans.)

According to scientists at the United Nations who are studying climate change, methane emanating from those four-chambered cow stomachs are a real problem, but one that could be addressed.

"Give up meat for one day (a week) initially, and decrease it from there," said Dr. Rajendra Pachauri, the chair of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which won a Nobel Peace Prize for its work in 2007, in an article in The Guardian (theguardian.com/environment/2008/sep/07/food.foodanddrink). The less meat we all eat, the less demand there is for more cows to be bred.

It is not enough by itself to solve this crisis, but it is important and can be done immediately (or at least this week). "In terms of immediacy of action and the feasibility of bringing about reductions in a short period of time, it clearly is the most attractive opportunity," said Pachauri.

The exciting thing about this approach to do something concrete about global warming, is that eating less meat is something you can do with your kids to help them feel empowered. Many children are as overwhelmed as their parents are about global warming and at times feel hopelessness.

But at least with this approach, it really doesn't matter who is in the White House, because you don't need to persuade them to do the right thing. You can take steps this week.

Or maybe it does matter who is in the White House. Seeing as the United States government has pulled out of the Paris climate accord, eating less meat might make more sense than ever.

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