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Stars, the chemists toolbox.

January 25, 2021

I don’t know about you but I like to pick at or inquire into a thing until I get to the bit that makes it make sense. Whether that’s a person, a movement (social or physical) or object. For me, studying and applying chemistry scratches that itch, helps me to understand why something does what it does, feels how it feels or is difficult to control (remain stable). I have never mentally struggled with the question of where my chemicals come from because I always felt that completely obvious but it turns out that isn’t the case for everybody and that’s what I want to discuss here. All the chemical elements we find here on earth, the items that make up the stuff of high school nightmares – the Periodic table – all come from space and were born in stars. That very same stuff then becomes everything else.

My interest in space and chemistry have made it hard for me to subscribe to the ‘natural vs synthetic’ dichotomy we care about so much in this industry, especially as it quickly became clear to me that few people if anyone really have the time or inclination to discuss this in any depth. While I no longer get as hung up on those semantics as I used to, I felt it might be interesting just to share with you some of the magic that goes on up there beyond our atmosphere especially given that this, 2021, marks my year of moving towards clarity. Clarity starts with knowing and understanding what you’ve got.

From Sky Gods to Science.

Humans have been looking up and wondering about the stars since time began and I got a potted (mostly western) history of that over the recent holidays whilst reading Stuart Clark’s book ‘Beneath the night. How the stars have shaped the history of humankind’. The book describes how our relationship has evolved from our early cultural relationships and stories through to the time of Aristotle who claimed that the ‘earth was made of divine matter and was different to space’ and on to the scientists of the Islamic Revolution and beyond. One of the largest leaps in our scientific understanding of the night sky came out of the work by Cairo-based polymath Ibn al-Haytham’s from around 1000 c. His work on optics and vision, astronomy, mathematics and the development of the scientific method helped form the foundations for the Scientific Revolution that followed some five hundred years later.

By the 1500’s the idea that the earth was at the centre of the universe was becoming increasingly hard for scientists to ignore or defend although that didn’t mean it was any less dangerous to do so! Copernicus became famous for his mathematically backed model showing how what we observe in the night sky makes more sense if it is the sun, rather than the earth at the centre of our universe – a bold move in such God-fearing times! A few decades later in Italy, Galileo Galilei got into huge trouble with the Catholic Church’s Inquisition and was eventually placed under house arrest for the rest of his life for what he did to further develop and publicise the work that Copernicus had started with regards to the order of our solar system.

The wrestling between God and Science continued to shape the work and biases of scientists here in the western world for the next 2-300 years. People like Sir Isaac Newton tackled this by identifying as ‘Natural Philosophers’ which, in a nutshell meant scientists who were using and developing the latest tools and mathematics to study and reflect on the beauty and wonderment of nature without questioning the spirituality of it all. I don’t know whether this was smart diplomacy or heart-felt sentiment but on reflection it totally makes sense to keep some of the magic (or divinity) alive, especially given the awe we naturally feel when looking up at the night sky! But it was the arrival at what we now call the ‘Modern Scientific Revolution’ in the 1800’s that enabled scientists to focus on staying in their lane (what they can observe, measure and test) that really got things moving in terms of space exploration.

Analysing the Stars

Long before we blasted off towards the stars, the stars came to us as meteorites. These stone and metal objects have been making their dramatic entrance into earths atmosphere since time here began and chemical analysis of these objects helped us take the first solid steps in uncovering the material nature of our universe.

Today we don’t have to wait for things to fall to earth, we have telescopes that can scan the skies and pick up signals indicative of different elements and molecules. We have found carbon, the stuff of life, in the Diffused Interstellar Bands (DID’s) that appear as gaps in the spectrum of light from distant stars and galaxies. We also know that these DID’s contain much of their carbon as Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons, the same ‘nasty’ chemicals that we produce when diesel fuel or other objects are burned. We know there is amorphous carbon (reactive carbon such as we find in coal) in stardust and that these little sooty specs that float around in space are able to form bonds with hydrogen atoms as they float around in space’s super cold vacuum, thus kick-starting the same organic chemistry chain that goes on to give us aromatic ketones and alcohols such that we find in pears and other fruits.

The Nobel gasses, known for their inertness and loner-tendencies here on earth can be found cavorting around with hydrogen in supernovas such as the Crab Nebula while red gassy giant stars seem to be the birthing place for elements such as Iron, Oxygen and Carbon. The heavy element of Silica, which makes up around 60% of the earths crust, Sulphur and Calcium have been identified as forming when supernovas collapse in on themselves as they explode and pretty much everything else on that Periodic Table of Doom has been spotted forming somewhere or other up there.

The Nature of Chemicals.

While we can turn to space to understand the origin of all chemical matter on earth, we must turn our attention inwards to understand the nature of the chemistry we, as humans both employ and generate with intent.

The difference between the chemical element Iron, which is present and useful in all living things and the element Polonium – a deadly but rare, radioactive metal is less about it being made of different, more dangerous matter and more about proportionality and space.

Both Iron and Polonium are made from electrons (-ve charge with a mass of 1 unit), neutrons (no charge) and protons (+ve charge with a mass of 1 unit) just as all elements, but in differing quantities and physical arrangements (shells). If we go back to the stars which give rise to these elements, rather than wonder what made all the different materials that must exist in stars, we’ve now distilled it down to something quite simple – energy, polarity and proportionality. Exposure to different forces as the star explodes creates the conditions that decide how much of each get together, this singular process that spits out combinations of three types of sub-atomic matter generate all of the different elements that go on to form everything else.

If all chemical elements are materially the same, albeit in differing proportions, what we are dealing with here on earth when we talk about chemical elements, chemical compounds or complex materials is not material, it’s potential.

Material = what something is made of.

Potential = What something can become/ cause or turn into.

Cosmetic Chemistry, Nasty Chemistry, Natural Chemistry.

So now I guess we should bring this back to what we are all here for – Cosmetic Chemistry and I feel the above idea of potential is useful here.

Cosmetic chemistry relies on ingredients, ingredients are always chemicals and decisions around the chemicals that are publicly acceptable have, for a while now been shaped by a somewhat arbitrary decision making process based largely on material origin.

What I have attempted to show above, in a long-view origin-story way is that material origin has no baring on material potential and that it is material potential that really matters.

The potential for a material may be innate (inborn/ natural) such as we find with the elements that make up the periodic table and the molecules that form here naturally on earth, this would include cosmetic materials such as clays, salts, plant matter and other mineral, or it can be gained, constructed or acquired. For years now, humans have been able to construct materials based on their own intentions, to design materials that help humans fulfil their potential – this would include cosmetic materials such as silicone fluids, synthetic surfactants, many solvents and more besides. Where humans have often (in my opinion) gone wrong is not so much in what we have constructed but in not understanding its full potential before it got too late! For example, us humans created a durable, long-lasting materials that made the mass-manufacture and transportation of consumable products not only possible but also cheap! This material was plastic and today it is a word that sends many an environmentalist off in a tail spin. However, what I’m trying to say here is the plastic situation of today isn’t a material failure, it is a failure of attention and focus – a lack appreciation for the materials whole potential, something that maybe a life-cycle analysis could have made obvious, could have seen us make changes that made the problem go away. Hindsight is such a lovely thing but just as the scientists observing the stars in our pre scientific-revolution world were hamstrung by God, we too may be hamstrung by arguments over material origin or chemical name.

The future is written in our stars.

The stars, natural and unbothered by our human endeavours gave birth to the chemistry that made us and everything material that we can imagine. For hundreds of years we have played with those star-burst chemicals, arranging it in ways that have helped us fulfil our worldly hopes and dreams, make our lives more comfortable, affordable and fun. But then we saw that in doing this, we were often stealing from our future, leaving the world unbalanced, polluted and poisoned. We sought to remedy this by framing it as a war of origin, pitching natural vs synthetic, focusing only on the material and not on the material potential…

It is arguably impossible to pre-empt the full and complete potential and environmental fate of all chemicals that we construct but if we never account for our role in imagining, shaping and developing that potential, if we never see ourselves as as the ‘stars-on-earth’ chemical soup makers, we are doomed to repeat our mistakes right up to the minute it is too late.

So to conclude, when you are creating new chemistry be that at an ingredient or product level, it is disingenuous to focus entirely or get hung up on the origin of matter because all matter shares an origin. The key place to focus is on its potential. First there’s the potential which we imagine and read about in the material data sheet or its technical data. Second is that bound up in the new material or product – what it does and can affect, and third is the potential which is stored and that may have unhelpful consequences down the track. Essentially this is a life-cycle or cradle-to-grave analysis and yes, it would have just been easier to say that in the beginning but then I would not have been able to tell you about the stars and that would have been tragic 🙂

Reaching our full potential as environmentally savvy cosmetic chemists is easy when you remember that it all starts in the stars.

Here are some useful articles and references that I read when researching this piece.

  1. Last day of the dinosaurs’ reign captured in stunning detail. National Geographic magazine article that looks at the impact of the Yucatan Peninsular Meteor that fell to earth here, in Mexico, some 65 million years ago and wiped out the last dinosaurs. This article helps explain how scientists are discovering more about the chemistry of space.
  2. Chicxulub Impact Event – more information about the massive meteor in Mexico.
  3. The Raw Materials in Space. Scientific American article looking at where chemicals come from and what is being found in space.
  4. What is the origin or Iron. A quick review of where Iron is formed in space.
  5. The discovery of Nobel gas molecules in space. An article outlining what we know about nobel gas space chemistry and abundance.
  6. Silica in space, where it comes from and how space glass is formed.
  7. Chemistry World – A chemical account of Evolution.
  8. Beneath the Night. How the Stars have shaped the history of humankind. A great book by Stuart Clark.

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