Star Dust

  1. My friend Bruce Marsh died on December 30, 2023 in a climbing accident.
  2. “Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust” - Book of Common Prayer
  3. “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 starstuff.” - Carl Sagan, Cosmos
  4. Bruce operated a part of the largest and most complex machine built in the history of humanity (CERN's Large Hadron Collider) to study that dust. Humans have classified that dust into about 118 different types of elements. You studied these in school. But there are over a thousand other elements or, more specifically, variations of those elements. These are called radioisotopes. Some of them last for only the briefest fractions of a second, others, much longer. Scientists study radioisotopes or their traces to either try and understand the beginning of the universe or to make advances in medicine. It doesn’t take much poetic license to say that Bruce studied star dust, specifically star dust that doesn’t last very long, and isn’t generally found on earth.
  5. Climbers cover their hands in chalk, and inevitably that chalk ends up on the rocks they climb, or the ground beneath it.
  6. These are photos of chalk dust.
  7. It is possible that the scale of things doesn’t go from small to large in a linear fashion, but is instead a circle. Start with the tiniest particles, which we might call dust, and then keep going up the scale, you again arrive at things that look to us like dust… except that they contain galaxies. 
  8. The poet Jack Gilbert wrote:

“We look up at the stars and they are

not there. We see the memory

of when they were, once upon a time.

And that too is more than enough.”

David Wittig, 2023