March 15, 2019 | David F. Coppedge

How Well Do Astrophysicists Understand the Origin of Heavy Elements?

Elements heavier than iron form in supernova explosions. End of story. We can all rest now. But wait…

The origin of heavy elements via supernovas is one of those facts everybody learns without question. Astronomers say so in textbooks, on TV and in science media without any qualification, like “scientists believe” or “scientists think” it is so. It just is so, we are told. It led Carl Sagan and many of his disciples to quote, “We are made of starstuff.” Stuff happens, and this stuff exploded out of stars. Some of the stuff you might want to gather though; it includes gold and platinum.

Speaking of gold and platinum, some Japanese scientists have been investigating the origin of heavy elements like gold, platinum and everything else heavier than iron (atomic number 26). Astrophysicists have been able to explain the lighter elements within traditional stellar fusion theory, because those reactions are exothermic. The heavy elements, though, require endothermic reactions, and the only known source for that much energy is a supernova. Beyond that, few people realize the degree of uncertainty involved. A report from Japan’s National Institutes of Natural Sciences reproduced on Science Daily lets readers in on some dirty little secrets.

It is not yet identified where and how elements heavier than iron in the universe have been made. Drawing attention as one of the origins of the heavy elements is a merger of two neutron stars. In August 2017, gravitational waves caused by the merger of two neutron stars 130 million years ago were detected. At the same time, emission of the light called kilonova was also observed. The light of a kilonova comes from the material released by the merger of the neutron stars, and it is believed that the material contains abundant heavy elements, including precious metals such as gold and platinum, and rare earth metals such as neodymium.

A kilonova is a particular kind of massive supernova involving the collision of two neutron stars. With a lot of careful filtering of spectral noise, these scientists believe they identified absorption signatures of three ionized forms of neodymium in the debris cloud from the kilonova.1 That represents only one step in a difficult challenge of establishing whether all the heavy elements can be explained this way.

High precision computation of multiple-electron atoms is challenging due to difficulties in accounting for subtle correlations among electrons. In quantum mechanics, the correlation effects are represented by coherent superposition of different arrangements of constituent electrons. A virtually infinite number of arrangements are possible. The research team tested different sets of arrangements as to provide high accuracy data in realistic computation times, and succeeded in finding the optimal set of arrangements for each neodymium ion. Computed energies of constituent electrons agree with NIST’s world standard data within approximately 10% error in average, which is a much higher accuracy than has ever been achieved by the research team, and provide millions of wavelengths and probabilities for light absorption. An astronomer in the team, Masaomi Tanaka, Associate Professor at Tohoku University simulated the light of kilonovae using both the data with the highest precision and the data with a poor accuracy. The influence of the difference in precision on the brightness of the light is evaluated quantitatively for the first time to be approximately 20% at most. This value is sufficiently small to increase confidence in analysis of the light of kilonovae. Thus, the results of this research will accelerate research to elucidate the origins of precious metals such as gold and platinum in our universe by using the atomic data of highest precision.

In many areas of science, confident assertions rest on challenging measurements that have to be taken by fallible humans. Doing the best they can, they come up with probabilities and likelihoods that are far less confident than the assertions made by popularizers. A 20% error is not very good, and that was just for one element. What about the other 66 naturally occurring elements?

  1. Gaigalas et al, “Extended Calculations of Energy Levels and Transition Rates of Nd ii-iv Ions for Application to Neutron Star Mergers.” The Astrophysical Journal Supplement Series, 1 Feb 2019.

The conclusions indicate that very little is actually known about how heavy elements came to be. The theory that supernovas create heavy elements may well be true. But how would one know? So far, just the signature for neodymium, with its error bars, fits the theory. What if it is the only one? Maybe just a few heavy elements can be formed in this way. Wouldn’t it be better for scientists to let the public know about the uncertainties? Instead, materialists are so eager to paint a broad-brush picture of big-bang-to-man, they sweep the uncertainties under the rug. (The big bang, you realize, only could have created hydrogen, helium, and a little bit of lithium, so everything else had to come from somewhere.)

Another issue we should consider is how those heavy elements got to the earth, and how they became accessible on the surface where humans could use them. We find pretty large deposits of gold in places, and platinum, and copper, and so-called “rare earth elements” (see Evolution News about those) that we use in our cell phones, jewelry and machinery. Our bodies need about 28 elements, including iron and heavier elements. How many supernovas had to occur in our stellar neighborhood to supply Earth with its observed values, and how did the elements get swept up into the one planet that has people who could benefit from them? Once they were incorporated into the planet by mindless processes, how did they get to the surface? Recall that diamonds, the most beautiful of gemstones, erupt rapidly to the surface from great depths. Does a mindless planet cooling from a molten state owe us any obligation to supply for our needs and for beautiful or useful things beyond the needs for survival? Of course not, but a Creator would take all the requirements into account.

The Bible speaks of elements as valuable to humans, and made available for our good. Consider God’s promised blessings to Israel as they came toward the promised land:

So you shall keep the commandments of the Lord your God by walking in his ways and by fearing him. For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land, a land of brooks of water, of fountains and springs, flowing out in the valleys and hills, a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey, a land in which you will eat bread without scarcity, in which you will lack nothing, a land whose stones are iron, and out of whose hills you can dig copper. And you shall eat and be full, and you shall bless the Lord your God for the good land he has given you. (Deuteronomy 8:6-10)

The Lord is telling the people that He has supplied the land with riches, including heavy elements, for their good. Materialists will scoff at this “religious” argument for precious metals and other heavy elements, but it has a major improvement over secular theory: the degree of certainty. Psalm 19:7-8 says,

The law of the Lord is perfect,
    reviving the soul;
the testimony of the Lord is sure,
    making wise the simple;
the precepts of the Lord are right,
    rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of the Lord is pure,
    enlightening the eyes.

If you can know truth by its fruits, this passage teaches that the Word of God has the effect of bringing revival, wisdom, joy and enlightenment. The Bible is not a textbook of science, but it provides a solid foundation on which to build a scientific enterprise.






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  • John15 says:

    Dear David,
    There is nothing in nature perhaps more randomized than a kilonova explosion. So how likely is it that among its products would come the “optimal arrangement for each ion?” The flash produced by that kilonova covered the entire quadrant of the galaxy in which it occurred. Isn’t it just as likely that some neodymium was present in the environment before the kilonova? Just thinkin’.

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