In A Really Old Universe

So, my thinking about an “Olbers Universe” infinitely old and infinitely large in extent brought me to a depressing conclusion that such a universe has to be empty, or at least just about perfectly empty. But we can still ponder variations on the idea and see if that turns up anything. For example, what if we have a universe that’s infinitely old, but not infinite in extent, either because space is limited or because all the matter in the universe is in one neighborhood?

Suppose we have stars. Stars do many things. One of them is they turn elements into other elements, mostly heavier ones. For the lightest of atoms — hydrogen and helium, for example — stars create heavier elements by fusing them together. Making the heavier atoms from these lighter ones, in the net, releases energy, which is why fusion is constantly thought of as a potential power source. And that’s good for making elements up to as heavy as iron. After that point, fusion becomes a net energy drain. But heavier elements still get made as the star dies: when it can’t produce energy by fusion anymore the great mass of the star collapses on itself and that shoves together atom nucleuses regardless of the fact this soaks up more energy. (Warning: the previous description of nucleosynthesis, as it’s called, was very simplified and a little anthropomorphized, and wasn’t seriously cross-checked against developments in the field since I was a physics-and-astronomy undergraduate. Do not use it to attempt to pass your astrophysics qualifier. It’s good enough for everyday use, what with how little responsibility most of us have for stars.)

The important thing to me is that a star begins as a ball of dust, produced by earlier stars (and in our, finite universe, from the Big Bang, which produced a lot of hydrogen and helium and some of the other lightest elements), that condenses into a star, turns many of the elements into it into other elements, and then returns to a cloud of dust that mixes with other dust clouds and forms new stars.

Now. Over time, over the generations of stars, we tend to get heavier elements out of the mix. That’s pretty near straightforward mathematics: if you have nothing but hydrogen and helium — atoms that have one or two protons in the nucleus — it’s quite a trick to fuse them together into something with more than two, three, or four protons in the nucleus. If you have hydrogen, helium, lithium, and beryllium to work with — one, two, three, and four protons in the nucleus — it’s easier to get products of from two up to eight protons in the nucleus. And so on. The tendency is for each generation of stars to have relatively less hydrogen and helium and relatively more of the heavier atoms in its makeup.

So what happens if you have infinitely many generations? The first guess would be, well, stars will keep gathering together and fusing together as long as there are any elements lighter than iron, so that eventually there’d be a time when there were no (or at least no significant) amounts of elements lighter than iron, at which point the stars cease to shine. There’s nothing more to fuse together to release energy and we have a universe of iron- and heavier-metal ex-stars. I’m not sure if this is an even more depressing infinite universe than the infinitely large, infinitely old one which couldn’t have anything at all in it.

Except that this isn’t the whole story. Heavier elements than iron can release energy by fission, splitting into two or more lighter elements. Uranium and radium and a couple other elements are famous for them, but I believe every element has at least some radioactive isotopes. Popular forms of fission will produce alpha particles, which is what they named this particular type of radioactive product before they realized it was just the nucleus of a helium atom. Other types of radioactive decay will produce neutrons, which, if they’re not in the nucleus of an atom, will last an average of about fifteen minutes before decaying into a proton — a hydrogen nucleus — and some other stuff. Some more exotic forms of radioactive decay can produce protons by themselves, too. I haven’t checked the entire set of possible fission byproducts but I wouldn’t be surprised if most of the lighter elements can be formed by something’s breaking down.

In short, even if we fused the entire contents of the universe into atoms heavier than iron, we would still get out a certain amount of hydrogen and of helium, and also of other lighter elements. In short, stars turn hydrogen and helium, eventually, into very heavy elements; but the very heavy elements turn at least part of themselves back into hydrogen and helium.

So, it seems plausible, at least qualitatively, that given enough time to work there’d be a stable condition: hydrogen and helium being turned into heavier atoms at the same rate that heavier atoms are producing hydrogen and helium in their radioactive decay. And an infinitely old universe has enough time for anything.

And that’s, to me, anyway, an interesting question: what would the distribution of elements look like in an infinitely old universe?

(I should point out here that I don’t know. I would be surprised if someone in the astrophysics community has worked it out, at least in a rough form, for an as-authentic-as-possible set of assumptions about how nucleosynthesis works. But I am so ignorant of the literature I’m not sure how to even find the answer they’ve posed. I can think of it as a mathematical puzzle at least, though.)