General Question

mattbrowne's avatar

How old are the carbon atoms in our bodies?

Asked by mattbrowne (31458 points ) October 13th, 2010

Recently I read that carbon atoms on Earth are at least 6 billion years old (note: this question is not about the decay of isotopes).

How good are our astronomical and astrophysical models to determine this value? Could it be something like

6.6 billion years +/- 200 million ?

As far as I know, there are four important factors

1) metallicity of our sun
2) abundance of chemical elements in the universe versus in our solar system
3) shock wave impact mechanism on interstellar clouds of dust and gas
4) time requirements for the formation of our solar system

Many scientists seem to believe that at least two supernovae occurred after the big bang till our solar system was able to form.

What do we know about the timing? And the gaps between the supernovae and the formation of the solar system?

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12 Answers

GeorgeGee's avatar

The “age” of the atoms isn’t very useful because carbon is “recycled” continuously. If an atom “lives” in a C02 molecule and is absorbed by a plant, it begins a new “life” there incorporated into the woody fiber of the plant. With few exceptions, all of our planet’s atoms are fairly stable and persistent; they change form but hang around year after year, with the exception of radioactive materials that are decaying into simpler elements, and the bits of light atmosphere drawn away by the solar wind. Carbon is a good baseline though since it’s simple, stable and visible.

Ame_Evil's avatar

In theory, all the material in the universe has always existed and will always exist even pre/post Big Bang/Big Crunch. Are you asking how long they have existed as Carbon?

mattbrowne's avatar

@GeorgeGee – No, I’m talking about nucleosynthesis, not molecules carbon might be part of.

mattbrowne's avatar

@Ame_Evil – Yes. Primordial nucleosynthesis did not produce any carbon as far as I know.

IchtheosaurusRex's avatar

The presence of heavy metallic elements in the Earth would affirm at least one supernova event, but the carbon could predate it by billions of years. It could come from anywhere. I’m a little shaky on this, but can’t the triple-alpha process occur in any star massive enough to produce the reaction as it begins to collapse?

mattbrowne's avatar

@IchtheosaurusRex – Well, eventually the triple-alpha process will occur inside our sun too. But almost all the resulting carbon will remain trapped in the white dwarf.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/White_dwarf#Stars_with_very_low_mass

I was wondering about the gap between two supernovae. Do we know how long it takes before new system begin to form?

El_Cadejo's avatar

I cant contribute anything intelligent, but I fucking love this question.

nebule's avatar

@uberbatman I agree… I’m lurking too

Blobman's avatar

@nebule & @uberbatman Can I join the club

zen_'s avatar

I’m one atom lower than @uberbatman – but I love this question and @mattbrowne , too.

IchtheosaurusRex's avatar

@mattbrowne , I don’t know offhand. I would suspect that astronomers are observing these events, but I don’t have any links that would help. My free login at Science pulls a lot of hits on supernovae. This one caught my attention:

http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/abstract/sci;283/5406/1290?maxtoshow=&hits=10&RESULTFORMAT=&fulltext=supernovae&searchid=1&FIRSTINDEX=0&resourcetype=HWCIT

Don’t know if it will help, but it seems apropos your question.

mattbrowne's avatar

@IchtheosaurusRex – Thanks for the link. I will check this out!

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