Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Fee- A Biography

Fee – A Biography of an Atom

Fee, an atom of Iron born billions of years ago, has see some incredible sights in his long life and in an echo of the film character Forrest Gump, has managed to find himself at the centre of some key moments in recent history. But to get to the beginning of Fee's story, we need to go back to a time before the formation of the Sun and the Earth when the universe was perhaps three quarters of its current age and a star, not too far away, was dying...

The star, some ten times larger than our own sun was turning into a supernova and, in one of its last convulsions, it sent out a shock wave of material, including many heavy elements, into space. Part of this material was an unstable isotope of Nickel, made in the last nuclear reactions of the star. Within a few hours this had decayed to form stable Iron - and one of those newborn Iron atoms was Fee.

Fee was born in the shock wave of a Supernova

Thus Fee's first memories are of of being part of this hot, complex shockwave of material that was speeding out into space, slowly dimming as it did so.

Within the shockwave could be found every naturally occurring element and, over time, Fee came to know them and recognise their characteristics temperaments.

Hydrogen atoms, for example, had been formed at the beginning of the Universe and were invariably very busy little atoms. Like tiny, hyperactive Scottish grannies, they were full of energy and rushing about trying to make the place look neat and tidy. They always had time to talk, in their sweet highland lilt, and didn't hesitate to despair about how stars these days didn’t know they were born and that it had been much harder in their day.

Carbon, in contrast, was a much more youthful, happy-go-lucky kind of element. This was not a surprise given that there was no carbon in the early universe and that it was all formed within later stars. Always ready to form links and complex compounds with other elements, Carbon was the atom that you wanted at your party.

In contrast to Hydrogen and Carbon, the “Noble Gases”, such as Neon and Argon were very different characters. You may remember your school science teacher explaining that these elements are so unreactive because they have a full outer orbit of electrons. This is complete rubbish. The real reason these gases are unreactive is that they are so arrogant, two faced and full of themselves that nothing else will have anything to do with them.

Fee travelled through the darkness for over a thousand years until, eventually, he saw in the distance a dim, slowly rotating, disc of gas, millions of miles across. Still moving at thousands of miles per second, the shockwave closed in on the disc and then, like some kind of slow motion cosmic tsunami, crashed into it.

Fee and the rest of the material in the shockwave joined the particles of dust and gas as they orbited around the central mass of the disc. Over time, this central mass, composed mainly of Hydrogen, accumulated more material and became a discrete, rotating sphere of gas.

The Embryonic Solar System

Over a period of 50 million years Fee watched the central sphere slowly, almost imperceptibly, become hotter, brighter, and denser until it reached the temperature required to support nuclear reactions between the Hydrogen atoms.

Those first fusion reactions changed everything. They released enormous amounts of light and energy which flooded outwards in all directions, lighting up the dust and rocks around what was fast becoming a fiery ball of gas.

More than that, in fact, it was a star. And no ordinary star - it was the star you know as the Sun.

Whilst the sun had been forming, the dust and gas around it had also been changing. Small particles were constantly colliding with each other and, over time, this was resulting in the creation of lumps of material. These in turn, would combine to form larger and larger structures.

Eventually, this was also what happened to Fee, first he became part of a grain of dust, then a small agglomeration of dust grains, then an irregular, boulder sized, lump of rock.

Similar lumps of rock were colliding everywhere across the disc. The largest agglomerations were able to collect material at an increasing rate and eventually formed the beginnings of planets. Initially under constant bombardment, these planets began to clear paths around the fledgling Sun, becoming larger and larger as they did so.

The Solar System we know today was being formed, and it was a spectacular sight to behold. Collisions between rocks would often send then hurtling into the path of one of the planets, where they would be caught in the gravitational pull and spiral down to impact on the planets surface.

As if this chaos were not enough, there were also millions of comets circling the Sun, each one leaving an icy trail behind it as though it were a celestial airliner with a contrail behind it.

For the next 400 million years, Fee watched as the planets slowly increased in size and the herds of comets slowly thinned out as, one by one, they plummeted into the orbiting planets or disappeared into the Sun.

For the Hydrogen atoms that Fee still occasionally met, 400 million years seemed to be no time at all. They continued to buzz around, reacting with any spare Oxygen to form water molecules and muttering that Jupiter was being very selfish in having so many moons.

Eventually, however, the inevitable happened. A chance collision sent Fee into a orbit that took him across the paths of the third planet from the Sun - a planet which you, of course, know as the Earth.

As the Earth loomed larger and larger, it looked, in some respects, much like it does today, with oceans and a cloudy atmosphere. But in other respects it was very different. There were no vast green forests, no savannah, no cities or roads. Instead, the land comprised uniformly dull hues of rock and sand, marked with volcanoes and lava flows. It looked strange in another way too - the continents were completely different to those today, there was no recognisable Europe or Africa for example. Strange coastlines marked out the land masses, some of which have left no trace of their existence in todays world.

The early Earth contained seas, and volcanos

Famously, "In space, no one can hear your scream", so it was a new experience for Fee to hear the rush of air as he, or rather the rock he was a part of, entered the earth’s atmosphere. Within seconds friction had heated the surface of the rock to such an extent that it was starting to melt and form a fiery trail behind it as it plunged downwards.

Then, suddenly, the rock was encased not in fire but in boiling water and steam as it hit the surface of one of the planets first oceans. As the surface of the rock cooled and the surrounding water cleared, Fee could see that there were no fish, no turtles, not even plankton or krill. The water was not barren, however, and did contain a thin mist of tiny bacteria. A very early form of life on earth, these tiny creatures were unlike most bacteria today in that they did not consume or release oxygen.

Eventually, the rock landed on the sea bed. Over time, parts of the rock, including Fee, dissolved into the water and then flowed with the ocean current as it circled the globe. Each circuit took hundreds of years and Fee completed many hundreds of thousands of circuits. During this time he heard, via the grapevine, that the land remained completely barren.

As Fee circled the world, the bacteria in the oceans slowly changed and evolved. Some of these new bacteria had a biochemistry that used sunlight to produce energy, with oxygen as a waste product. These creatures became very successful and the oxygen they produced - a very toxic chemical to many other bacteria around at that time - began to accumulate in the oceans.

The oxygen reacted with pretty much everything and had a particular affinity for iron, combining with it to form iron oxide (which you may know better as “rust”).

These oxides of iron were not soluble in water and precipitated out as tiny iron oxide particles. And that was how Fee eventually found himself on the seabed again. Looking around, Fee could see that, for hundreds of miles in every direction, there was a thin red layer of layer of rust particles that had precipitated out from the ocean just as Fee had. The slow, almost imperceptible, rain of rust continued for millions of years. Periodically the conditions in the sea would change and the rust would be replaced by a gentle snowfall of some other mineral. As time (inevitably, millions of years) went by, Fee became buried under layer upon layer of sediment. Pushed down towards the hot rock of the earth’s mantle temperatures increased to over 900 degrees centigrade and pressures became almost unbearable, compressing the soft sediments into dense, dry, hard rocks - leaving Fee locked into huge rock formation that covered a vast area.

Fee was bound into a banded Banded Iron sediments like this

Even for Fee, who had a pretty relaxed view of time, the three billion years that he spent in this rock formation was a very, very long time.

By the end of this time, about 200 million years ago, the rock formation had been contorted and fractured to such a degree that it was not possible to believe that it had once been a single, banded, horizontal layer. Much of it had been elevated to form part of a mountain range in what is now known as Europe. The range was close to a shallow sea that covered much of what would eventually become the British Isles.

Much like today, mountains are weathered by sun, rain and frost. In time, this resulted in the rock layers above Fee being work away until, suddenly, Fee was again at the surface and could gaze upon the world.

It had changed.

The land had been transformed from a barren desert to a vista teeming with life, The low lying lands were covered in ferns, mosses and pine trees. Amongst these crawled and flew a variety of insects, some of a very spectacular size. This was also the time of dinosaurs, with giants such as diplodocus lumbering across the land.

The Jurassic World

Further weathering continued to break away sections of rock and Fee found himself being carried away as sediment in a river and then deposited into the sea.

Here, as on the land, there had been tremendous changes since he had last been in the ocean. Whereas his last visit had been at a time when the only life in the water was bacteria, the sea was now teeming with fish of all sizes, as well as turtles, squid and much else.

As further layers of iron-rich sediment were laid upon Fee, he resigned himself to another long stretch entombed in rock - but it was a "mere" 200 million years before he found myself lying in a rock seam a few tens of metres below the surface of nineteenth century Cleveland, in the north east of the UK.

Life gets busy
As he lay in the rock, there was a shattering explosion that left Fee and the surrounding rock fragmented on the floor of some kind of mine tunnel, and he was swept up onto a conveyor and taken to the surface of the mine.

The landscape that met Fee was one that was unremittingly industrial. In all directions lay blast furnaces, slag heaps and railway lines. The furnaces were separated by rows of workers terrace housing. It was a grey, monochrome scene. From the smoke stacks pouring out smoke into the sky to the factory walls and the dusty train yards. It was grey- all of it.

Fee emerged to a scene of blast furnaces and slag heaps

Within a day, Fee was thrown into the heat of a blast furnace and becoming part of the molten bath of iron - soemthing which, contrary to what you might expect, is rather a pleasant experience for an Iron atom. From the furnace Fee was cast into a slab of iron which was then rolled and pounded into a thin sheet before being packed up and shipped out.

The sheet iron was used to form a smokestack for a steam locomotives. Built by Robert Stephenson in 1828, it was the very first steam train to be shipped to the United States to run on their fledgling railway.

The Lancashire Witch, sister train to the "American"

Whilst the “American” was well received in the US, engine technology moved on so fast that it was soon broken up and Fee then spend several decades as part of some farm equipment before being sent off as scrap iron to be smelted down into something new.

His destiny on this occasion was to be used to form part of the suspension cables of the Grand Avenue Suspension Bridge in St Louis, built in 1891.

A majestic structure, the cables hung from two imposing twin stone towers and supported the two hundred metre span of the bridge. The bridge traversed the central railway lines of the city and was in service for some seventy years. Fee could see that the trains the bridge carried were very much more powerful than the likes of the "American" and were able to haul hundreds of carriages of freight to the Gulf, Atlantic or Pacific coasts.

The industrial might of the city was demonstrated when, in two world wars, it dedicated itself to manufacturing military equipment and munitions. A billion rounds of ammunition flowed out of the city every year from one factory alone, much of it on the railways below Fee.

In 1959 the bridge was demolished and, for the third time, Fee soon found himself floating in a blast furnace. .

Always feels good to be in a blast furnace

This time around, Fee was formed into steel sheet that was used to make tin cans - in Fee's case a tin can that ended up containing dog food!

The well developed recycling system for steel cans resulted in Fee spending the next few years moving between smelter, canning factory, grocery store and recycling facility.

Just as Fee was starting to get a little bored of this cycle, he found himslf being smelted into a very different kind of steel called "stainless” steel, which is a form that contains a large about of Chromium.

Chromium, it has to be said, is the dandy of the elemental world. No matter what the situation, Chromium always wants to look good. If you were to raise a stainless steel knife or fork to a mirror, pretty much all the Chromium atoms within it will perform the elemental equivalent of checking their collars and adjusting their hair.

A surprising turn of events
Processed into a thin sheet, Fee was then used as a part in some kind of small scientific component.

Fee was somewhere in these foils

The component was attached to a larger structure called, apparently, "Pioneer 10". . .

At the time, Fee had not idea what he was a part of.

...then, in 1972, the structure was moved across the country to Florida and attached to an even larger, tall, cylindrical construction. Workers fussed all around for days until, suddenly, they all seemed to dissapear and it became very quiet, save for a loudspeaker counting down seconds.

As the countdown reached zero, great pillars of fire blasted out from the base of the structure and it began to move skywards, slowly at first then with increasing speed, all the while the vibrations from the fiery pillars casuing the structure to shake.

Take off !

After several minutes of this acceleration, the vibration suddenly stopped, a covering shroud blew off and Fee could finally see where he was.

Behind lay the curvature of the earth, the oceans, clouds and landmasses spread out in a vast, beautiful artwork. In front lay nothing but empty space and the planets of the solar system - something that Fee had not seen for over three billion years! The solar system had changed greatly since then and was now a much calmer, quieter, more grown-up place than the noisy, dangerous cosmic kindergarten that it had been when Fee had first crashed into the earth.

Listening in on the grapvine revealed that Fee was on a vehicle called Pioneer10 and that it was heading towards Jupiter.

For nine months Fee coasted through space, heading towards Jupiter before using the gravitational pull of Jupiter as a slingshot to send Pioneer 10 speeding towards the outer edges of the solar system.

By 2010 Fee had passed beyond the orbit of even the furthest planet and was moving into interstellar space.

By now it was clear to Fee that there was no turning back, he would never return to Earth and his future lay somewhere out there amongst the stars. Apparently, Fee would pass close to the star Aldebaran in about 2 million years time. Two million years? No problem, bring it on. That was no time at all compared to the billions of years that he had spent buried in rock formations on Earth.

Fee wondered where not where he would be in two million years, but rather where he woudl be in two hundred or two thousand million years. What stars might he see? Might there be another plantetary disc with, as it were, Fee's name on it? Or perhaps he was on a course that would leave him meeting nothing, ever.

So, somewhere, far away, there is a particular sheet of thin stainless steel. If you were to look at that sheet with a very, very powerful microscope, you might be able see that it is composed of individual atoms, mostly of iron.

One of those atoms is Fee, and this has been his story….so far.

Always feels good to be in a blast furnace

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Interview - Chris Lintott and the Zooniverse

copyright Ash Choudry Update 21-Dec-12 : Decided the story was clumsy in the first person, so amended it to be in the second person. Hopefully that has made it a little less pants.

Update 26-Dec-12 : More typos corrected (Thanks for stpotting Mike !)

Update 28-Dec-12 : Got retweeted by @NASAVoyager2 on Twitter !

Image Sources
Supernova, Solar nebula, Volcano, Banded Ironstone, Dinosaurs, Industry, Blast Furnace, Foils, Assembly, Launch, Space

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