July 10, 2014 | 1
What’s a Super Bowl ring got to do with geology, right? I mean, geology’s probably not the first thing that comes to mind when you gaze upon the Seahawks’ (first ever!) shiny new bling. Don’t worry, it wasn’t for me, either. Naw, I didn’t think, “Ooo, geology!” I thought, “Da-yum, that’s expensive!”
And then I was like, What a shame this isn’t a Beastquake,” and then, “I wonder what the stones are?” and that’s when I had the duh-huh moment. Stones. Rocks. Y’know… geology.
Diamonds! Sapphires! Tsavorite! White gold! That ring is made of geology. It wouldn’t be there without geology. Heck, it is geology! And there’s a geologic story behind those stones. I’ve decided to tell it.*
Only… it’s more complicated than I thought.
It begins with the birth of the Universe.
It gets pretty explosive at times, in more ways than I knew.
And it finishes with a rare form of my birthstone, and a fantastic bit of geologic detective work, and a tragedy.
The story begins this way:
A long, long time ago, before there were any galaxies at all, much less any far, far away, a Universe began…
There wasn’t anything like geology back then, of course – just some utterly mind-boggling physics that birthed the first, lightest elements. Hydrogen and helium, with traces of lithium, and just a hint of radioactive tritium and beryllium, emerged within the first three minutes of the Universe’s existence. The radioactive bits soon decayed away. Physics ruled a universe of three elements. The stuff geology – and jewelry – is made of didn’t exist.
Until three hundred million years passed…
And tiny variations in density caused some of the matter to condense under the influence of gravity…
And stars were born…
Which promptly get to work on forging the star-stuff planets and people and Super Bowl championship rings are made of.
All of the elements heavier than hydrogen, helium, and our little trace of lithium are created in stars (aside from a few outliers made by cosmic rays). Deep inside, where the temperatures and pressures are unimaginably high, atoms and bits of atoms are fused together to form brand-new elements in a process called stellar nucleosynthesis. And that process started the moment the first star ignited.
The earliest stars would have been massive hydrogen-helium monsters, living short (by star standards) lives before going out with a smaller-than-the-Big-Bang-but-still-a-very-big-bang. Why only large stars? Because it’s not just diamonds that need carbon. More modest stars like our Sun wouldn’t be here without it. Good thing that’s one of the first elements the giant stars got to cooking, then, right? Those giants fused hydrogen to helium, helium to carbon, and on up the elemental chain until they got to 56nickel, which decays to 56iron. This is the end of the line: iron can’t be “burned” like other nuclear fuel. In a rather complicated and dramatic series of events, stars fall down and go boom. That boom releases many of the lovely elements the star’s been cooking, and creates many others in the blastwave.
This is where our Super Bowl ring elements are made:
Smaller stars can synthesize the carbon and oxygen necessary for our ring ingredients. Larger stars contribute the calcium, copper, aluminum, zinc, silicon, vanadium, chromium, titanium and iron. Supernovae contributed even more of those large-star elements, plus the (stable) nickel**, gold, and rhodium. From three hundred million years after the Big Bang to five billion years ago, the stars forged on, living and dying, passing their star stuff to new generations of stars. Eventually, a huge cloud full of molecules of gas and grains of dust left by defunct stars and enormous supernovae got nudged just enough to collapse, clump, and form new stars, which finished forging the elements that would become our own Sun and Earth.
Now, to cook up a smaller star like the Sun, possibly with attendant planets, you need a cloud full of carbon and oxygen, along with silicates and the other heavier elements. It’s not just because eventual geology requires more than hydrogen and helium gas – a star the size of the Sun needs the parent molecular cloud to keep collapsing far enough to form it. But the cloud heats as it contracts, and as the large stars it forms begin to burn. And as we know from hot air balloons, heat makes gasses rather giddy and expansive. This would stop the cloud from condensing into a Sun – if it weren’t for all those lovely H2O and CO molecules and wee carbon grains, which do a bonza job of absorbing heat and radiating it as infrared, which has no problem saying sayonara to the cloud. That escape of energy keeps the cloud cool enough to continue shrinking until smaller stars form.
Our solar system came into being in just that way.
And around the newborn Sun, wee grains of cosmic dust – the silicates and carbon grains and tiny traces of various and sundry elements – chased each other round and round. Sometimes, they bumped, and stuck, and “became big fluffy balls,” essentially cosmic dust bunnies. And those dust bunnies floating round the Sun began combining under their own gravity. They grew, and got more solid, and banged into each other, collected together, and eventually became the planets.
The heat from that glancing blow caused the Earth to melt all the way through. Iron and nickel sank to the center. A crust formed. Radioactive elements – the echoes of energy from supernovae – decayed, releasing their heat, keeping the interior nice and bubbling hot, while the crust cooled and hardened.
That molten interior began convecting. Plate tectonics got busy.
The geological processes that would transform starstuff into Super Bowl ring stuff came into their own.
And things got rather explosive again…
Stay tuned next week for diamonds, plus the big esplodey things that mean we get to put them on Super Bowl rings and things. And visit En Tequila Es Verdad for outtakes and extras!
*Turns out these rings have volumes to speak about geology. And I suspect they’re not the only ones. So, when we’ve explored the geologic epic behind the Seahawks’ Super Bowl rings, why not tell me the next bit of jewelry you’d like me to investigate? We’ll make a regular feature of it. Send your ideas to dhunterauthor at gmail.
**That lovely nickel the large stars expend so much time synthesizing has a half-life of 6.077 days. You won’t find any of it in Super Bowl rings!
Gribbon, John and Mary (2000): Stardust: Supernovae and Life, the Cosmic Connection. New Haven and London, CT: Yale Nota Bene.
Smoot Group: Formation of the High Mass Elements. Last accessed 7/10/2014.