Krauss book explores universe from oxygen atom's perspective

May 13, 2001

CLEVELAND -- Author and Case Western Reserve University physicist Lawrence Krauss begins his science epic "Atom: An Odyssey from the Big Bang to Life on Earth ... and Beyond" long before matter existed. His story is about the universe told from the perspective of a single oxygen atom.

A drink of water in the Rodin sculpture garden in Paris sets the stage for what becomes a toast to the beginnings of a universe that gave rise to this atom. What follows, he says is "the atom's remarkable and amazing journey that is fraught with accidents and catastrophes that nevertheless ultimately makes life possible, and which will continue after we are gone."

In order to tell about this remarkable journey, Krauss went to the forefront of the latest discoveries over the past three decades in astronomy, biology, geology, and physics to explore the long-term development of the universe.

"The book explains how discoveries over the past 30 years have changed our vision of nature, and have led us to understand such things as how one might start the universe without matter or equal amounts of matter and anti-matter and end up with a universe of stars and galaxies," says Krauss, the chair and Ambrose Swasey Professor of Physics.

By telling a story about oxygen, he wanted to show his readers how in a very real way "every atom in our body has been, and will be, in some amazing places," and that forefront of science has a real and immediate connection to the atoms in each of our bodies. His oxygen hero emerges in its present form billions of years after the earliest moments of the Big Bang, where quarks form into protons and neutrons that within minutes become the building blocks for helium and hydrogen -- the first elements.

It takes several billion years before the oxygen atom ultimately forms, and during this time its ingredients experience cosmic odysseys as they travel through space in a still young, unsettled, and dynamic universe.

Caught up in the collapse of gas to form a star, a carbon atom -- an early ancestor of oxygen -- is blown into space after a supernova explosion and finds its way to a comet. That comet seeds another planet with the elements for growing life, only to have another asteroid destroy the emerging ecosystem.

Spewed into space again, the atom wanders throughout the Milky Way galaxy for eons before it once again finds itself swept up in an evolving star, merging with other partners, all of which have had their own adventures, to form the nucleus of an oxygen atom. After this star also explodes in a supernova, this atom ultimately makes its way to earth.

"One of the most poetic things that I know about the universe is that every atom in our body may have once been deep inside an exploding star, in fact, many different exploding stars. We are all star children," exclaims Krauss.

Jupiter's gravity played a role in flinging this oxygen protagonist to earth. The planet acted as a gatekeeper for space objects, either sending them outside the galaxy into the Oort Cloud beyond or as a barrage of matter to Earth or other inner planets in the solar system.

Inside one of many comets that rained down upon the earth and helped to seed it with water to form oceans, the water molecule containing our oxygen atom reacted with carbon dioxide to form carbonic acid, falling in an early acid rain.

Reacting with rock, it became trapped in limestone that settled in the ocean depths, where the shifting tectonic plates buried it for another 100,000 years. A volcanic eruption spewed it into the atmosphere as part of the carbon dioxide molecule. The cycle continued to repeat itself every 10-100 million years as life forms began to evolve.

At first oxygen was toxic to life, writes Krauss. He points out that if the earth had had an oxygen atmosphere early on, life would likely never have formed. It took billions of years for living organisms to be able to sustain life in an oxygen environment, and remarkably it is precisely these organisms that helped create the oxygen atmosphere we now breathe today.

Early life forms of bacteria and slime-like organisms continue to exist even today deep within the oceans near heated earth vents and well-protected from such catastrophes that may have annihilated many species over the past four billion years of earth's history, including the loss of dinosaurs. These catastrophes also helped to give rise to new life forms that could co-exist in an oxygen-rich world.

Similar, or worse, catastrophes will occur in the future, but our oxygen atom will live on and have other adventures, says the physicist. Whether life can survive as long is a question Krauss deals with in the last part of the book, which unveils a remarkable vision for the future.

Krauss' work profoundly changed the way he now looks at the world. He hopes the book does the same for his readers.

"When I look at anything now, I see this story reflected in it. I hope it will capture people's imaginations in the same way," says Krauss.

He is working with PBS and the BBC to develop a multi-part television series to follow this exciting adventure of an atom.

"Lawrence Krauss has Carl Sagan's knack of expanding the imagination and explaining the mysteries of the universe in simple terms," says Stephen Hawking, author of "A Brief History of Time." With each breath inhaled and exhaled, we become one with our universe, according to Krauss, the author of popular science books such as "The Physics of Star Trek," "Beyond Star Trek," "Fear of Physics," and "Quintessence."

In one breath of air, we breathe approximately 6 x 10 23 of oxygen atoms. "They span many different histories," he says. "We can argue that no matter how unlikely a scenario is for any given atom in a breath full of atoms, some atom in each breath has experienced this story."

Case Western Reserve University

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