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where do hydrogen atoms come from

Where Do Hydrogen Atoms Come From

From galaxies to atoms to the cells in your body, the very large is made is made of the very small. We humans are somewhere in the middle of it all.

Making up the thinking and moving parts of each one of us are roughly 30 trillion eukaryotic cells whose cytoplasm consists of a variety of organelles such as a nucleus, ribosomes, an energetic mitochondrion, and enough deoxyribonucleic acid to design an entire human from head to toe from zygote to adult. Each cell organelle is, in turn, made of proteins consisting of chains of amino acids which are combinations of carbon, oxygen, and nitrogen atoms, plus the first among all of them, the tiny ubiquitous hydrogen atom, one negative electron circling one positive proton, the atomic great-great grandparent of all matter in the universe.

On Earth, about four billion years ago carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, along with phosphorus, sulfur and other atoms went through a number of complicated chemical processes that eventually turned inorganic chemicals into organic flesh, blood, teeth and bones and a brain that developed consciousness and the ability to think beyond the sum of its billions of neurons and synapses.

We are very fortunate that we now have the ability to look back into the events that brought us to this point in our long evolution from a tiny, very dense speck in space to living beings. We humans are the result of an interesting series of events that got us to this fertile Earth, our little home in the vast universe.  From primates, to hominins, to human beings, we adapted to the environment here and flourished. It was quite a journey, but here we are.

Time, as we measure it today, came into being about 13.8 billion years ago. Most of our ancestors probably did not give the past nor the future much thought. To them time had always been and always would be. It was not until 1932 that astronomer, physicist, and Catholic priest Georges Lamaitre, came up with a theory about the event that started time and that produced all of the matter in the universe we see today. He described it as “the cosmic egg exploding at the moment of creation.” It was a radical idea for its time, especially coming from a Catholic priest.

The idea of a singular beginning of the universe eventually began to catch on, but not everyone at first agreed with the concept of a universe that began at one point in space and time. For example, in 1949 astronomer Fred Hoyle, who believed the universe was constant and not expanding, desparagingly dubbed the exploding cosmic egg idea the ‘big bang’. After studying the work of Edwin Hubble and others who determined that most stars and galaxies were actually moving away from us and away from each other, he later came to agree that the universe was, in fact, expanding, which implied that it had a beginning somewhere. Although he had meant the term “big bang” to be a joke, the unscientific moniker stuck.

This small but extremely dense ‘cosmic egg’, when it went through its rapid expansion, or what scientists call the inflationary epoch, emitted three types of fundamental particles: negatively charged electrons and two types particles that in 1964 physicist Murray Gell-Mann named quarks. There were ‘up quarks’ with a weak positive charge and ‘down quarks’, with a weak negative charge. It is interesting that Gell-Mann got the name for these particles from a line in chapter two of James Joyce’s intriguing novel Finnegan’s Wake, “Three quarks for Muster Mark”.

The quarks in turn formed other particles. Two up quarks and one down quark held together by particles appropriately named gluons formed positively charged protons. Two down quarks and one up quark formed a neutron, a particle about the same size as a proton but with no electric charge.

For around 380,000 years following the big bang, the young universe was hot, too hot for electrons, protons, and neutrons to interact with each other. Then as the particles floating around in the universe began to cool, the negative electrons began to be electrically attracted to positive protons. Electrons, which are much smaller than protons, did not merge with the protons but began to orbit rapidly around them. When this happened the relatively large positively charged proton and the small negatively charged electron made up the universe’s first atom, an atom that we now call hydrogen. The small hydrogen atom was so tightly wound there was no room for a neutron.

Thus, from the early stages of the universe, negative and positive electrical charges, the same as run the lights in our homes today, were the forces that led to the creation of the first atoms. The interaction of electrical charges went on to be critical in the formation of all matter as well as the biological processes regulating all living things on Earth. For example, the flow of proteins and other molecules in our cells is regulated by the strength of positive and negative electrical forces.

It is interesting that the terms positive and negative are taken for granted today as defining electrical charges. But it was not until the 1740s that Benjamin Franklin, who did quite a lot of work with electricity, started calling these forces positive and negative. Before that, the two charges were called vitreous and resinous. Franklin, a genius who invented several important things, considered the lightning rod his most important invention because it caught the electrical power of lightning and grounded it before it could set a house on fire.

Over the next millions of years so many hydrogen atoms came into existence that they began to form into nebulous clouds that in time became massive enough to come under the coalescing influence of the strong force of gravity. That same, not quite understood, gravitational force that holds us down to earth pulled and pulled the atoms toward the centers of the cloudy nebulas so tightly that the heat inside them rose to well over 20,000,000 degrees Fahrenheit. This coalescing force of gravity on clouds of protons and electrons led to the creation of the first stars.

The tremendous heat and pressure inside the cloud started a process called stellar nucleosynthesis wherein the crowded hydrogen atoms began to fuse together into new atoms. The new atoms, the first ever created by hydrogen fusion, were isotopes of hydrogen called deuterium which, being a bit larger than the original hydrogen atoms, had room for a neutron. So, the first atom created by fusion contained one proton, one neutron in the nucleus and one electron orbiting around it.

As the deuterium and hydrogen atoms continued to run into each other inside the hot, high-pressure nebula, they fused into another hydrogen isotope called tritium with one proton and two neutrons. Then as the process continued, hydrogen atoms fused into a completely new atom we call helium with 2 protons, 2 neutrons, and 2 electrons. With this first atomic fusion, the process of stellar nucleosynthesis was off and running and our universe began to take shape as numerous stars were created and formed into galaxies.

The complicated process of hydrogen atoms fusing into an atom of helium causes an orbiting electron in the new atom to jump out of a low energy orbit near the atom’s nucleus to a higher one and to absorb a bit of the atom’s energy in the process. Then as the electron jumps back to its original energy level it emits that energy it had absorbed. The energy emitted by the movement of the electron deep inside the core of a star is a gamma ray photon, a massless packet of energy with a frequency that puts it at the high end of the electromagnetic spectrum.

Like all photons, gamma ray photons travel at the speed of light, and if we are exposed to enough of them, they are powerful enough to be dangerous to most forms of Earthly life. Gamma rays cannot be seen with our eyes, yet their energy level is high enough to cause a fatal amount of cell damage to us soft-celled humans. In an atomic bomb blast, for example, after the initial explosion, residual gamma ray radiation can continue killing living things.

The stellar nucleosynthesis fusion process has been going on in our sun for about five billion years, and if all the gamma rays it produced had hit Earth, life would not have evolved as it did. Fortunately for us, there are two phenomena that slow down the gamma ray before it gets to us.

First, when the gamma ray is emitted from an atom, it bounces around inside the core of the sun, and loses part of its power to the protons of the hydrogen and helium atoms it bumps into. So, a good many of the photons that happen to reach the surface of the sun, have been reduced in frequency and radiation by the photon-to-proton collisions.

As a result of the lowering of its frequency, by the time the gamma photon reaches the surface of its parent star, or in our case, our sun, it can have a frequency anywhere from low frequency radio waves if it loses a lot of power to high frequency gamma rays if it does not.

In our sun, for example, the zig-zag journey of photons from the core to the surface can take many years. So, by the time they reach the sun’s surface, most of them have lost enough radioactive energy that they are not dangerous to us and their wave length has been increased from the original .01 nanometer down through the electromagnetic spectrum to X-rays, to ultraviolet, through the visible range of 400 nanometers to 700 nanometers. Other photons might be reduced in frequency on down the spectrum to infrared, microwave, and to low frequency radio waves with the longest wavelengths. Then, 8 minutes and 19 seconds after the array of photons leave the sun’s surface traveling at 186,282 miles per second and radiate 93 million miles through the vacuum of space, we see a portion of it as light.

Also helpful to us is that most of the gamma rays the sun sends our way are absorbed by the ozone layer high in our atmosphere and do not reach Earth’s surface. For this reason, it is important to keep the Earth’s ozone layer in good shape.

In billions of stars over billions of years the fusion process has continued beyond hydrogen and helium building larger and larger atoms such as carbon with 6 electrons, 6 protons, and 6 neutrons, oxygen with 8 electrons, 8 protons, and 8 neutrons, and on and on until all of the elements that we and everything around us are made of were created. So far, 92 natural elements have been found, the last being uranium 238 with 92 protons, 92 electrons, and 146 neutrons.

And it all started with one three-quarked positively charged proton and one tiny negatively charged electron coming together in a cosmic copulation that led to the birth of hydrogen.

Although hydrogen has been around for well over 13 billion years, it was not until 1766 that scientist Henry Cavendish separated it from other elements and studied its properties. At the time he called it flammable air and noticed that it produced water when it burned. Then in 1781 Antoine Lavoisier gave a name to this newly discovered gas when he combined two Greek words: hydro –water and genes – generating, for its ability to generate water when it burns.

Hydrogen is in our bodies and all around us. Since it is 14 times lighter than air, it does not stay in our atmosphere long before it evaporates into space. But there is still plenty of it on Earth and it has a multitude of uses, especially when combined with oxygen or other elements. The most important combination for us is when two atoms of hydrogen combine with one atom of oxygen and make water, H2O, the most essential liquid on Earth. We drink it, bathe in it, eat things that grow in it, put out fires with it, and run indoors when it falls from clouds.

Conversely, when cooled to 20.28 degrees kelvin, or minus 423.17 degrees Fahrenheit, hydrogen becomes a liquid that when combined with the right amount of oxygen becomes a light-weight highly combustible rocket fuel. Most large rockets today use hydrogen-oxygen rocket fuel.

The list of the many functions of hydrogen is long. For example, one important use for hydrogen is in fuel cells which turn hydrogen and oxygen into electricity. Hydrogen fuel cells are becoming a viable and environmentally friendly alternative to internal combustion fossil fuel engines in cars, trucks, buses, and some day, airplanes and boats.

Whereas two atoms of hydrogen combined with one atom of oxygen make water, H2O, add another atom of oxygen, and you get the antiseptic, hydrogen peroxide, H2O2.

Although many chemical combinations involving hydrogen are beneficial, some, such as hydrogen sulfide, H2S, and hydrogen cyanide, which is a combination of hydrogen, carbon, and nitrogen, HCN, are toxic to humans.

Hydrogen is also the atom used in the most destructive weapon ever developed by humanity…the hydrogen bomb. In the bomb, two isotopes of hydrogen, deuterium with one proton and one neutron and tritium with one proton and two neutrons, set off a chain reaction which causes the atoms to fuse into helium with two protons and two neutrons and in the process creating an enormous amount of energy.

This is the nearest we have come so far in creating the fusion process that goes on inside a star. Scientists hope that controlled fusion reactions can someday be developed to produce electricity. The main problem has been how to generate and control the high amount of heat needed to sustain the fusion of the hydrogen isotopes.

Matter started with hydrogen, and it is today the most abundant element in the universe. It makes up the stars. We also see it as dust when we look at the Milky Way or pictures from the Hubble or Webb telescopes. Many of these clouds of dust are in the process of coalescing into stars. The number of hydrogen atoms in the universe is far beyond our imagination.

All of us want to be number one, but try as we might, none of us will ever be as number one as hydrogen. It was the first atom, number one on the Periodic Table of Elements, and number one in the fusion of everything.

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