‘We are stardust’

This is my weekly column that ran in the Sunday, Feb. 1, 2009 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

‘We are stardust’
By Aaron J. Brown

During my elementary years people would ask me my favorite subject in school. Science, I would say. Science seemed the most real.

Reality is a valuable substance where I am from. Back then we lived in a trailer house on a family-owned salvage yard just south of Eveleth Taconite’s production plant. The sprawling mass of metal rested along the rail line that shipped those little iron pellets to Duluth. Trains passed a quarter mile from the house at certain measurable times. At night, when the grass was wet with summer dew, the stars twinkled down on the junkyard, just as they shown down on my school, the taconite plant up the road and the capitol dome in Washington. I monitored the frogs and tadpoles dwelling in a holding pond underneath the gravel wall blocking scrap heaps from the view of discriminating motorists and county inspectors. The talk at holiday gatherings centered on torque, horsepower and RPM and it all seemed so magical to me, something that should be better understood. Science, I would learn in school, was a way of figuring out matters such as these.

Unfortunately, I possess the mind of a writer, not a scientist (or mechanic). My wandering thoughts prevented the kind of patience needed to experiment, record, analyze and repeat. Rather, I preferred to observe and imagine. And here I am. But I always wanted to be a scientist and today is no exception.

I read a lot of politics and history; can’t help it. Lincoln. Mining reviews. Roosevelt. Truman. The News. Plans for the future. Discussions of government policy. Lately, I’ve been reading “Death by Black Hole” by Neil deGrasse Tyson. It’s a book of astrophysics essays by the director of America’s most prominent planetarium. These topics seem disparate but I see them connected in the story of the place where we live, the Iron Range of Northern Minnesota.

People who grow up on the Iron Range know that the local economy is somehow tied to taconite, an iron product that is recognized by new generations mostly as a word on the sign where a lot of people’s parents work. The presence of iron and all its implications seems second nature to the Iron Range, but is not second nature to our country, or – as I have read recently – the universe.

“The buck stops at iron, the final element to be fused in the core of first-generation stars,” writes Tyson in “Death by Black Hole.” In other words, as elements generate energy through fusion in a star, they change into new, heavier elements until the star becomes too heavy for even its own immense energy to sustain. The star then collapses and explodes, becoming a supernova.

“When you forge elements heavier than hydrogen and helium inside stars, it does the universe no good unless those elements are somehow cast forth to interstellar space and made available to form planets and people,” writes Tyson, concluding: “Yes, we are stardust.”

As Tyson points out, that’s how the carbon comprising our world, the very fingers that type these words and the eyes that read them, escaped from the hot, gassy grip of some distant star. I can’t help but think that the iron beneath our feet on Minnesota’s Iron Range might be too heavy for some. Our history shows ample evidence of human fusion, colossal amounts of energy expended for the common cause of building American and winning World War II, but some would say the best work of the last few decades has been in educating young people to explode into an open world.

I am no scientist, certainly no astrophysicist, but I can’t escape this metaphor. Iron may doom a star, but it is absolutely critical to the universe. Unlike a star, the Iron Range’s fate is not set by the periodic table of elements. However, we are at risk of collapsing in on ourselves by waiting too long for others to do what we must do ourselves. The Iron Range needs more human energy, a shared effort to pursue the promise of a new century, something that must be lighter than any metal.

Aaron J. Brown is a columnist for the Hibbing Daily Tribune. Contact him or read more at his blog, MinnesotaBrown.com. His new book “Overburden: Modern Life on the Iron Range” is out now.

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