By J. Craig Wheeler
Absolutely up to date moment variation for undergraduate scholars in astronomy and astrophysics.
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Additional info for Cosmic Catastrophes: Exploding Stars, Black Holes, and Mapping the Universe
When the last of the hydrogen burns out in the center of a star, the star must get even hotter to burn helium. It solves this problem in a natural way, using energy conservation. 1 Positively charged atomic nuclei repel one another at long distances but are strongly attracted at short distances by the nuclear force. In analogy to a deep hole surrounded by a raised lip (a ‘‘volcano’’), some energy must be invested as heat to force the nuclei close to one another or to roll a ball up the hill. After the nuclei are sufficiently close together, the short-range nuclear force can bind the nuclei together to make a new element and liberate energy, just as a ball, having reached the precipice, can plunge down into the crater, yielding more energy than it took to roll it up the hill.
The combination of four protons and four neutrons is unstable. A nucleus with four protons and four neutrons falls apart and hence cannot be one of the steps in nuclear burning to produce a heavier ‘‘ash’’ from a given fuel. Nature finds a way around this bottleneck by utilizing the more rare process by which three helium nuclei occasionally become close enough to combine under the control of the nuclear force. The result is a nucleus with six protons and six neutrons, the element carbon! This is where all the carbon necessary for life arises.
After the nuclei are sufficiently close together, the short-range nuclear force can bind the nuclei together to make a new element and liberate energy, just as a ball, having reached the precipice, can plunge down into the crater, yielding more energy than it took to roll it up the hill. In practice, the atomic nuclei need to have some neutrons so that their nuclear attraction can overcome the charge repulsion of the protons. 29 30 Cosmic Catastrophes out in the center, no energy is being produced.