Cernan Earth and Space Center
Rumplestiltskin's Starry Secret
Grade Level: 5th grade and upLength: 32 minutes
Rumplestiltskin's Starry Secret is a video presentation produced by the Minneapolis Planetarium Society. Within the framework of the Grimm's fairy tale about a dwarf who was able to spin straw into gold, this video presentation discusses the subject of the elements, the periodic table, alchemy, chemistry, and how stars are responsible for the creation of all the heavy elements (including gold) within the universe. The program begins with the narrator (a woman astronomer) recalling the story of Rumplestiltskin, which she was first told as a child. Motivated by a imaginary visit from the little dwarf, she sought to discover the true origins of gold and the other elements that comprise the universe. Her research uncovered that the ancient Greeks were the first to list the fundamental building blocks of nature, which they called "earth," "air," "fire," and "water." Early researchers pursued alchemy, which is the proto-scientific and philosophical discipline that attempted (among other things) to convert common metals into gold or silver.
The program next recounts the Greek myth of King Midas, who was granted his wish of turning anything he touched into gold, but soon discovered the problem of having this ability. Over time, the science of chemistry gradually replaced the discipline of alchemy. The 17th Century Irish chemist Robert Boyle was one of the first persons to recognize that chemistry should be more than just trying to change base metals into gold. He was also the first person to recognize that the four elements described by ancient Greeks were not elements at all. Instead, Boyle identified 14 distinct elements. The program draws a parallel between Robert Boyle and Johannes Kepler, the astronomer of the same era that replaced the ancient Greek notion of perfectly circular planetary orbits with elliptical orbits.
Chemistry continued to evolve and improve, and during the 18th Century, chemists began to separate and identify the individual gases from the mixture of air in our atmosphere. The contributions of the English chemist Joseph Priestley (the discoverer of oxygen) and French chemist Antoine Lavoisier (who is often called "the father of modern chemistry") are discussed next. Collectively, their work revealed 30 elements, not just four.
British chemist John Dalton greatly advanced the science by publishing his Atomic Theory, which said that all elements are composed of tiny particles called atoms. Further work by the 19th Century scientists Robert Bunsen and Gustav Kirchhoff confirmed that elements could be identified by the spectral composition of light emitted by incandescent objects. Their discovery of the "spectral fingerprints" for various elements laid the groundwork for astronomers being able to identify the chemical composition of stars by examining their incoming light.
Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev is credited for being the primary creator of the periodic table of the elements, which hangs in today's science classrooms throughout the world. How he did this, and how he correctly arranged the elements into categorical rows and columns is next described in some detail, followed by our current understanding of the elements, their arrangement in the periodic table, and the characteristics of atoms.
appears again, and tells the narrator that "the secret to making gold is looking up." The narrator soon realizes that what the tiny man meant was that the secret to making gold is found in the stars. The narrator describes the Big Bang that set the current universe in motion, but comes to realize that only the elements hydrogen and helium were created at that time. Other cosmic subjects are mentioned during this segment of the program, including Edwin Hubble's discovery of the expansion of the universe and the 3o Kelvin background radiation.
Albert Einstein’s famous equation E = Mc2 explains how stars shine through nuclear fusion, an atomic process that fuses smaller atoms (usually hydrogen) to form larger atoms (usually helium). Through most of a star's lifetime, it does not produce atoms heavier than helium. Later in its life, stars such as our sun (low mass stars) will produce elements as large as carbon (atomic number = 6). Elements heavier than carbon can only be formed through the dying processes of high mass stars (10 to 100 times the mass of our sun).
The element iron (atomic number = 26) is notable for being the final element produced by stellar nucleosynthesis, and therefore is the most abundant heavy metal in the universe. Elements heavier than iron are only produced when large mass stars die through a supernova explosion. We know this by recent observation of Cassiopeia A, a supernova remnant in the constellation of Cassiopeia. Observations of this stellar explosion confirmed that heavier elements were in fact ejected into space by the violence and extraordinary energy of that explosion.
In truth, we can literally thank these supernova explosions for providing the raw materials that formed the Sun, Earth and all living things, including humans. We have all "come from the stars!"
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