09 November 2012

Food is "star stuff"

Champagne supernova. Credit: Space Daily
"If you want to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe."

When you eat a slice of apple pie, or any pie, or any food at all today, on Carl Sagan Day, it may be worthwhile to reflect on this quote, one of the beloved television series host's most famous from Cosmos: A Personal Voyage.

A look back at our origins is a good way to gain some perspective, amidst the accumulating scientific evidence, on how to understand our own biology and predicting ways in which we can keep our own healthy. Or, at least, that has been my conclusion. Starting at the beginning with the chemistry of life, our own evolution, and to that of our close cousins, then on to our current situation, and the future, this blog has explored all sorts of topics relating to diet and health in the past and forthcoming.

Over the years, what's evident is that there exist numerous ongoing debates in the world of food, nutrition, and medicine. Some are scientific and some are not so. Frustrations arise. Tension happens. People disagree. That is the nature of progress albeit it can be slow going at times much like evolution.

Sometimes, setting aside any so-called dietary dogmas, one can find some simple peace in the knowledge that all life and our foods are based on basic chemistry. After all, as the father of nutrition Antoine Lavoisier once said, "Life is a chemical process."

In addition, nutritional biochemist Michael Crawford and David Marsh once wrote, that "every particle of matter in the delicate tissues which build our bodies is made of elements that were transmuted into their present form in an unimaginable heat and pressure" (1).

Andy Howell a staff scientist at Las Cumbres Observatory Global Telescope Network and an adjunct professor of physics at University of California, Santa Barbara is someone who might just have a grasp on the temperature and pressure that furnished our basic elements.

In his entertaining talk, given on dark matter, zombie stars and supernovae at the Science Writers 2012 meeting in Raleigh, North Carolina, Howell gave an overview of the history of physics, the known universe, and then showed models of stellar thermonuclear explosions.

He described how the temperature and pressure in supernovae, such as the Type 1a supernova he and fellow astronomers including Ben Dilday discovered (2), are capable of producing the very iron in our blood and the calcium in our bones is created.
Credit: Neven Mrgan

While the astronomer discussed the nature of "alchemy," or the fusing of matter into atoms and elements, and how each of these elements (e.g. calcium) shoot out from exploding stars, I could only fixate my attention on the sobering fact that every particle of matter in me and an apple pie (carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, calcium, iron) was produced in a supernova in the same way.

And, the eloquence of that celebrated man came to mind, because of one other wonderful thing he famously said. This quote should be cherished by all scientists -- chemists, astronomists, biologists, and food scientists alike:

"The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of star stuff."


  1. Crawford M and Marsh D. Nutrition and Evolution. New Canaan, Ct: Keats Publishing; 1995.
  2. Dilday B, Howell DA, Cenko SB, et al. PTF 11kx: A Type Ia Supernova with Symbiotic Nova Progenitor. Science 24 August 2012: 337(6097);942-945. DOI: 10.1126/science.1219164

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