Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star

“Twinkle, twinkle, little star. How I wonder what you are.” This is the first line of the famous lullaby: “Twinkle, Twinkle, little star”. Now stars are no stranger to being mysterious, yet they’re in our face all the time. The chances are if you look around now, you will see one. But they are mysterious: why do they twinkle? Why are they so hot? Those are the questions asked in this lullaby and the questions we are going to be answering in today’s blog! Now, let’s start with “twinkle, twinkle, little star.” How do they twinkle? Well, the answer lies not with the stars itself but with our atmosphere. Our atmosphere churns and refracts light in different and almost unpredictable ways. This phenomenon causes the stars in the sky to twinkle. How about then “how I wonder what you are.” Lots of people who ask themselves this question just say “it’s a flaming ball of gas.” Then just brush it off. But that’s just not true. Let’s start with fire. The fire triangle, in case you don’t know, is the three components that fire needs to burn. Here’s a diagram

It states that fire needs to have oxygen, some kind of heating source and something to burn. Let’s put this in the context of a star in space. It might have had some heating source to light it, it could have something to burn but it doesn’t have oxygen. So it can’t be aflame. Next up is “ball of gas.” I mean the “ball of” bit is right, but stars are not gas and it doesn’t specify what stars are made out of (they are made out of hydrogen). I see this as completely logical because gas is the most energetic of the three states of matter. But the only problem with that is that there are five states of matter. These are solid, liquid, gas, plasma and quark-gluon-plasma. I explained what quark-gluon-plasma in a previous blog (click on the picture).

But here we are going to talk about plasma, the state in which stars are in. Plasma is when the atoms in the matter have so much energy that the electrons (the particles that orbit the nucleus). Go on a path tangent to the location it was in, in its orbit. Here’s a diagram of an atom

Blue = electron, red = proton. But, here comes the mind-boggling bit. How can protons connect, over and over again, if the same magnetic poles retract? To break it down. Protons connect and stick together. Protons have a charge of +1. Same magnetic poles retract from each other. How can this be? DISCLAIMER: This last section is not the easiest to understand and may confuse younger audiences. The answer is quantum tunnelling. Quantum tunnelling is when a quantum particle, such as a proton in our case, seeps through an energy barrier. Think of it like this. Imagine the proton as a big bouncy ball. There is a hill and you want to push the ball over it. But you don’t have enough energy. So the ball just rolls back down again. Think of that scenario as two north poles retracting against each other. But what if the ball was more of a fuzzy cloud. Sometimes the ball would roll up and down the hill unsuccessfully but there would be a chance that the ball would roll through the hill and come out the other side. There would be a non-zero chance of it materialising on the other side.

Now put this in the context of stars, protons and energy barriers. Most of the time the protons would repel because of the very high energy barrier, but there would be a chance that the protons would overcome the energy barrier and they would stick together. I hope that all made sense. If it didn’t ask any questions through the comments section and I will try my best to answer them. Anyway, hope you enjoyed today’s blog. Farewell, I will see you in the next one!

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