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The Unexpected Discovery that Upended Astrophysics Nearly 70 Years Ago

Posted by Guy Pirro 04/17/2023 01:57AM

The Unexpected Discovery that Upended Astrophysics Nearly 70 Years Ago

Nearly 70 years ago, astronomer Paul Merrill was watching the sky through a telescope at Mount Wilson Observatory in Pasadena, California. As he observed the light coming from a distant star, he saw signatures of the element technetium. This was completely unexpected since Technetium has no stable forms – it’s what physicists call an “artificial” or “synthetic” element that does not occur naturally on Earth. It has only been created by human manipulation of fundamental particles in a nuclear reactor, a particle accelerator, or the explosion of an atomic bomb. Any technetium present when the star formed should have transformed itself into a different element, such as ruthenium or molybdenum, long ago. As an artificial element, how was technetium created in this star? On May 2, 1952, Merrill reported his discovery -- Stars can create heavy elements. Not only had Merrill explained a puzzling observation, he had also opened the door to understanding our cosmic origins. Not many discoveries in science completely change our view of the world – but this one did. The newly revealed picture of the universe was simply mind-blowing, and the repercussions of this discovery are still driving nuclear science research today.


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