ORIGIN OF THE BIOLOGICALLY IMPORTANT ELEMENTS

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Abstract

The chemical elements most widely distributed in terrestrial living creatures are the ones (apart from inert helium and neon) that are commonest in the Universe — hydrogen, oxygen, carbon, and nitrogen. A chemically different Universe would clearly have different biology, if any. We explore here the nuclear processes in stars, the early Universe, and elsewhere that have produced these common elements, and, while we are at it, also encounter the production of lithium, gold, uranium, and other elements of sociological, if not biological, importance. The relevant processes are, for the most part, well understood. Much less well understood is the overall history of chemical evolution of the Galaxy, from pure hydrogen and helium to the mix of elements we see today. One implication is that we cannot do a very good job of estimating how many stars and which ones might be orbited by habitable planets.