Effects of Nuclear Fusion on a Teenager’s Birthday

by Srijan D.

A couple million years ago some hydrogen or helium atoms fused together in our sun and released some photons in the process. These photons bounced around in the radiative and convection zone before they finally made their way to the outer layers of sun. From there it was about an 8 minute journey to finally collide with some water molecules near the Chapel Hill area. These collisions broke the hydrogen bonds holding the water molecules together as a liquid and released them into the atmosphere. They rose until they started accumulating around dust particles where they formed clouds before finally coming back down and drenching my button down shirt and pants on my 17th birthday. 

Rain and clouds have caused a lot of strife for me here at SSP. For one, they’re always blocking the telescope’s field of view. Making the 5 minute trek over to Morehead observatory at 1 am only to observe clouds instead of our asteroid is never a fun experience. Dealing with equipment malfunctions and erratic weather are all common experiences for us here; however, all of it is worth it when we finally see the little smudge of pixels moving across the screen. 

On this particular day, the sky had decided to start dropping water on me just as I made my way to the dining hall. At SSP we dress up a little bit for dinner everyday to make the experience more professional, but the consequence was that I had completely soaked through my button down and pants. Despite all of this, my birthday was still enjoyable because of all the new friends I have made at SSP. Walking in the dining room to my friends laughing at my stupidity at forgetting to bring my umbrella definitely cheered me up as I began to laugh with them. From now on, my umbrella goes everywhere with me

Ironically, nuclear fusion also impacted me in a different way on my birthday. Our morning lecture happened to be on white dwarves. At face value, white dwarves are the astronomical equivalent of burnt up coal, but the process by which they form and evolve over time is fascinating. A white dwarf is the core of a dead star that couldn’t sustain fusion anymore. The reason they still emit light is the same reason that molten lava glows red. The leftover heat from the core lights up the dead star and allows it to glow. The most interesting part about white dwarfs is when they start sucking in the mass from a nearby star. As they gain more and more mass, the pressure builds up until they can sustain fusion again. This causes a Type 1a supernova which is just a huge explosion. These specific supernovae are really important for astronomers to be able to tell the distance to certain galaxies.

Learning about white dwarfs and getting rained on definitely isn’t what I would have expected from my 17th birthday a couple years ago, and maybe under normal circumstances it would not have been as enjoyable. However, passionate faculty and students all make the  environment so much more enjoyable and exciting.

Me (left) and my roommate, Nico (right), after experiencing the effects of nuclear fusion first hand. PC: Oliver Lin

About Me:

Hi! My name is Srijan and outside of physics and math I really enjoy playing jazz piano and basketball with my friends. At SSP, you can usually find me scribbling random equations on the chalkboard, or playing super smash bros in the lounge.