The Weather Network
May. 20, 2022 | Friday
Editorials and Opinions
Dr. Brown: Space is in us and all around us
An early afternoon localized thunderstorm on East and West Line in July 2020 shows "popcorn" clouds and a mile-wide downpour. (Wiliam Brown photo)

Try prodding yourself with your fingers – feels solid enough doesn’t it – maybe a little too much here and there, but solid. You’ll swear to it.

What if I told you that you weren’t so solid – that most of you is empty space. Solidity may be the case for anything larger than molecules but not so much at the subatomic level. There’s a lot of space between the nucleus and those orbiting electrons.

Physicists who enjoy baseball are fond of using a sport analogy to describe this space. Imagine the nucleus of an atom to be the size of a baseball located at home plate. If so, the nearest orbiting electrons would be outside the Blue Jays' stadium and that would be the innermost orbiting electrons, the others further out depending on their orbits.

Of course, it’s not entirely empty space because the forcefields from the nucleus and electrons extend into the intervening space between the nucleus and the orbiting electrons – but otherwise empty space. Scaled up to molecules, cells, tissues and organs, we’re still mostly space.

What about the space around me? As I type this piece, I see the computer screen in front of me, my coffee jug to one side, clutter all over my desk and in my peripheral vision, my hands and the lights on both sides, but little else.

What I don’t see is the intervening air which fills over 95 per cent of the room by volume. Only when sunbeams catch the light in a certain way can I see the reflections off dancing bits and pieces of dust, days or perhaps months old, depending on how often and thoroughly I clean. That air is made up mostly of nitrogen (79 per cent), oxygen (20 per cent) and a menagerie of other bit-player gases.

Outdoors, I’m aware of the air around me by the movement of small branches if the wind is light or larger branches, or even tree trunks should a thunderstorm or cold front pass by.

Clouds are the other give-away to the presence of air because they form when and wherever the temperature in the air reaches the saturation point (dew point) at which the water in the air condenses into water droplets, frost or ice.

On hot humid days, it isn’t long before rising air on a sunny day creates bubbly clouds – what I call popcorn clouds – which by early afternoon often generate dark ominous towering cumulonimbus clouds.

Or perhaps on other days, flat clouds form in more stable air or fog when the air becomes saturated with water over the cool surface of a river or lake or inland in the early morning or evening in Niagara-on-the-Lake.

What about outer space? Is it empty? Far from it. Space is loaded with enormous clouds of hydrogen and lesser amounts of helium. Under the compressive gravitational effects of dark matter, those hydrogen clouds were shaped into increasingly dense swirls to eventually become stars and whole galaxies.

Once the force of compression raised the temperature of budding stars high enough to ignite nuclear fusion, those newborn stars literally lit up. Thereafter, in a series of nuclear fusions, called nucleosynthesis, increasingly heavier elements, up to iron, were forged.

But beyond iron, much higher temperatures are needed to create heavier elements – temperatures reached only by exploding stars (supernovas). And in the case of the heaviest elements in the periodic table, yet higher temperatures are needed – the kind created by the collision of two neutron stars in what is called a kilonova.

In the wake of supernova and kilonova events, newly created elements scatter throughout the neighbourhood to be picked up by newly forming stars. In this way all the elements in the periodic table were and continue to be created, including carbon, oxygen, phosphorus, nitrogen and sulphur – the ones essential to the creation of carbon-based life together with hydrogen that was created in the wake of the Big Bang.

Now for the interesting part. Interstellar space also includes a lot of carbon-based compounds such as CO, CH, HCOOH, H5CN, CN, C3S1, NH2CN and even six-carbon rings. Admittedly those interstellar carbon compounds are simple and widely scattered, but even so, form a plausible basis for life’s beginnings here and possibly many places in the trillion-galaxy universe we inhabit, even if the majority are well out of reach.

Much of the focus of solving the origins of life on Earth has focused on Earth with a side-glance to Mars and Mercury, and even the outer reaches of our own solar system, but the relatively abundant carbon-based chemicals in interstellar and intergalactic space suggest a more universal origin for life throughout the universe.

Looking beyond this pandemic, it’s good to be reminded about creation in its largest dimension and realize that darkness, isn’t emptiness.