We are stardust, we are golden …

Little did I think the line from the Joni Mitchell song about Woodstock could be taken literally! We humans actually are all made up of stars.

I’d heard the theory before, a TED lecture probably, but watching the wonderful first programme in the Beautiful Minds series on BBC on the iplayer Belfast-born astrophysicist Jocelyn Bell Burnell told us how we and the universe are made of the same stuff.

“The kind of chemical elements you find inside the human body – hydrogen and oxygen in the water, carbon in our tissues, calcium in our bones, iron in our bloodstream, they’ve come basically from the earth because that’s where the plants got them from. The earth and the sun, because they formed at much the same time, got these elements from preceding exploding starts. The material goes through a stellar cycle, explodes, gets incorporated in the sun and the earth and into us. And when we die, the atoms will get returned to the earth.

“We are ultimately and intimately, children of the stars. We are made of star stuff. So when we look at the night sky, we are looking at the environment we came from, that the atoms from which we are made come from, the roots of our being and that’s why I find astronomy so fascinating.”

You’d think that an in depth knowledge of astronomy – the fact that humans are made of cosmic materials, knowing how galaxies are formed, change and die, how the universe behaves – you’d think that Bell Burnell would be a card-carrying atheist, but she is in fact a practising Quaker. There is a revelatory interview which Joan Bakewell (who’s speaking at this year’s Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival) did with her here (BBC Religion) in which she describes her scientific work and her beliefs.

Personally, I think the fact that we are made up of the universe’s debris debunks any belief in a religious explanation for the origin of life. Religion, as a set of morals aimed at encouraging people to love one another, is a great thing to have, but do we need the all the paraphernalia of organised churches to do the most basic of things?

Jocelyn Bell Burnell was one of the people who discovered pulars, bodies in the sky – stars – which “emit radio signals in short, very evenly spaced bursts, or pulses. “ (You can find out more about pulsars on this page [Space.com])

She was overlooked for the Nobel Prize for Physics which her male superiors won even though it was she who actually identified the phenomenon but she was gracefully philosophical about it all.

Another thing I love about Jocelyn – she failed her 11+!

You can still get to learn a lot from Jocelyn Bell Burnell, a beautiful woman in many ways, on the iplayer for the next few days.

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