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Andrew Zimmerman Jones

We Are Stardust ... so deal with it.

By March 11, 2012

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The ongoing conflict between science and religion fascinates me. This front in the culture wars came to prominence once again over the last couple of weeks due to, of all things, the country singer Miley Cyrus (previously known as Hanna Montana to a lot of Disney Channel-watching youths). Here she is, in a picture where she looks nothing like her teeny-bopper alter ego, attending the 20th Annual Elton John AIDS Foundation Academy Awards Viewing Party in February 2012.

Miley Cyrus at Elton John AIDS Foundation Academy Awards Viewing Party
Source: Larry Busacca/Getty Images for EJAF

What, you may well ask, does Miley Cyrus have to do with science?

From Dust to Stardust

Well, let's start at the beginning, which was this March 1 tweet, in which Miss Cyrus said the word "Beautiful" along with a link to a graphic showing physicist Lawrence Krauss describing the process of stellar nucleosynthesis, which describes as "the most poetic thing I know about the universe." (Really, I suppose that starting at the "beginning" in this case would be the Big Bang ... but I digress! )

The controversy comes because the quote ends with "So forget Jesus. Stars died so you could live." As a country singer, Cyrus has a lot of Christian fans, and they were upset by this "forget Jesus" part of the quote. There were complaints back and forth on her Twitter feed, some quite civil comments and a few that were unnecessarily rude. Here's an article that covers the controversy.

In fairness to those who objected, only a very small fraction seem to have objected to the overall intent of Krauss' message. This (mostly) wasn't a case of young Earth creationists or Biblical literalists arguing with established scientific fact. Most specifically opposed the "forget Jesus" line.

But a handful did object to the notion that we were made from stardust, which I find interesting. Genesis 3:19 says "for dust you are and to dust you will return." So why not stardust? Let's be clear: the Bible provides no defined mechanism for the creation of heavy elements. So, really, there isn't even a conflict here. The Bible leaves a giant question mark in how elements were formed, so the scientific explanation should be satisfactory, even for Biblical believers.

It seems to me like only the most hardcore of literal readings of Genesis could possibly exclude Krauss' explanation as being basically consistent with the poetic description presented there. Honestly, the Genesis sequence of events is even mostly correct (though the timing is off), scientifically speaking.

Still, we are talking about people who are taking the time to harangue a young country singer for thinking that being made of stardust is beautiful.

I would argue that the only reason anyone couldn't agree with Cyrus' "Beautiful" assessment is because they're so blinded by the "forget Jesus" comment that they can't see the glorious explanation of creation (lowercase c or uppercase) provided by Krauss. Or, honestly, maybe they just didn't understand what he was saying!

Editorial Intent

I have to confess that even I got a mild amount of backlash related to this story. You see, I have this quote on the website, in both our Lawrence Krauss biographical profile and in the glossary entry for stellar nucleosynthesis, because I frankly find it one of the greatest quotes I've ever read on the subject.

Actually, I transcribed it directly from a video Krauss speaking on the subject. There are some mild differences between the wording in the Twitter graphic and the one I transcribed, so they may be quoting another one of his written or spoken presentations where Krauss framed the statements slightly differently, but they're extremely similar.

Here's how I framed the quote:

"Every atom in your body came from a star that exploded. And, the atoms in your left hand probably came from a different star than your right hand. It really is the most poetic thing I know about physics: You are all stardust. You couldn't be here if stars hadn't exploded, because the elements - the carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, iron, all the things that matter for evolution and for life - weren't created at the beginning of time. They were created in the nuclear furnaces of stars, and the only way for them to get into your body is if those stars were kind enough to explode.... The stars died so that you could be here today."

You'll notice that my quote does not include the "So forget Jesus" line. Frankly, the comment seemed a glib, somewhat amusing side-comment which played well in the spoken presentation, but which I felt was distracting in the written quote. When spoken, it serves not so much to diminish Christianity as to highlight the significance of the death of stars. It takes on more significance than it deserves when written into the quote, so I edited it out, because I believed it might turn people off to the science ... which, frankly, seems to have been exactly what happened in the Miley Cyrus situation.

Some people (my mother among them) have questioned whether it's permissible to remove things from quotes, so I guess it's fair to address this. I have two main points on how I justify this:

First, I included ellipses to indicate that text had been removed. Quotes are frequently edited for length and to make the quote more relevant to the subject at hand, especially if they contain asides or other distracting, filler comments. (Arguably I would put the "So forget Jesus" comment in this vein, since it adds nothing of scientific value to the passage.) Ellipses within a quote typically indicate that some text has been removed, so the editing wasn't obfuscated in any way.

Second, the removal of this line in no way altered the overall authorial intent of the original passage. This is the danger of editing a passage. The goal of an honest person is always to use the quote to maintain the author's original message (even if you're quoting with the intent of later refuting the author's message). For example, someone who was intending to manipulate Krauss' passage could have edited it to read: "It is really the most poetic thing I know ... Jesus ... died so you could be here today." This would clearly not have at all followed the author's intent. It would be dishonest and when I do edit quotes, I make every effort to ensure that the quote contains enough information that it's clear what the author is trying to say.

So, to my mother and anyone else, please keep in mind that when you see quotes on here with ellipses (...), it's possible that the quote has been edited to remove text, but never with the intention of obscuring the true intention of the original author. And, in this case, if you want the author's full intent, you can check out his new book, A Universe From Nothing.


March 11, 2012 at 11:51 pm
(1) Mogens Michaelsen says:

I perfectly agree, that it is fantastic that we are made from stardust, and the process of creation is very beautiful.

But I also think it is a good idea to make a clear distinction between saying “We are made from stardust” and saying “We are stardust”. It is exactly this difference that makes creation so fantastic.

In other words: It is NOT true, that we ARE stardust.

I don’t think it is correct to ignore the complexity of humans by “reducing us to stardust”, The complexity is also physical, and actually essential.

This is independent of the question of reductionism, as far as I can see – because the complexity is factual.

March 12, 2012 at 2:10 am
(2) E Castano says:

Well! … we are stardust organized in ways that science tries to understand every day. Since religions have nothing serious to say about this, they can be safely forgotten.

March 12, 2012 at 12:00 pm
(3) cacancel says:

Ok, so we are made from stardust. On that note, who made the stardust that made us?

March 12, 2012 at 12:28 pm
(4) Fabio Miguez says:

@cacancel: I thought that was pretty clear, stars made that stardust. OK, I know you are going deeper than that, so “who made the starts then?” or “where did the first elements come from” is probably more of what you meant, perhaps indicating everything needs a creator. If indeed, and only if, that’s what you meant, then the answer is “If God exists, who made him?”. Only fair that we call both to questioning.

March 12, 2012 at 1:10 pm
(5) jerryr says:

I love this. I’m a 68 year-old liberal atheist, and I love the science, but also anything I can use to tweak “religionists”. Yes, I like Bill Maher, though he’s maybe a little overboard sometimes.
I wonder whether Dr. Krauss’s book makes his explanation of the beginning of the universe at all easy for someone like me to understand? Probably not.

March 14, 2012 at 3:11 am
(6) Mogens Michaelsen says:

The scientific fact, that we are stardust organized in a very complex way that are not predictable, means that the universe itself is creative.

A human being can clearly also be creative. This human creativity is specific, but if you define “creativity” as “The ability to produce something new and complex in an unpredictable way” then human creativity is really a special case of a universal creativity.

Of course you might say, that only humans are “creators” because that word can only be used for created systems like ourselves. But isn’t that a purely linguistic distinction?

The problem with traditional religion is, that the concept of “God” is too anthropomorphic, I think.

March 17, 2012 at 10:43 am
(7) Josh Wilson says:

That we come from stardust actually isn’t “established fact.” It’s a theory (remember, the “theory” of evolution?). Evolution is one attempt to make sense of the observed “facts.” It is shot through with so many problems that it probably won’t be taken seriously a century from now. If you come at the evidence believing in God, you will regiment the evidence to fit that view. If you come at the evidence as an athiest, you will regiment the evidence to fit atheism. It’s time evolutionists started being more honest about this. It’s the “pretended neutrality” fallacy. If you believe in God, you’re not neutral, but if you are an atheist, you are. The truth is both naturalism and Christian theism are presuppositions that are arrived at not by a neutral examination of the evidence, but by taking them (atheism/theism) as first principles used to explain everything else. Personally, I don’t see how it’s easier to believe that matter, or energy, have always existed than to believe that God has always existed. There’s nothing irrational about the notion of an eternal being, but the belief in matter/energy that have always existed eternally is very irrational. Either way, something has to be eternal–something I have never actually heard an atheist admit.

March 19, 2012 at 6:32 am
(8) Jason Goemaat says:

” Evolution is one attempt to make sense of the observed “facts.” It is shot through with so many problems that it probably won’t be taken seriously a century from now:

Spoken as one who gets all his information from answersingenesis. There are many resources you could use to learn about evolution, but you would apparently rather not be bothered. I would be ashamed to speak publicly with such confidence about something of which I know so little. Research ERVs for one of many convincing proofs of evolution.

March 19, 2012 at 1:35 pm
(9) Jerry Ryberg says:

The ACTUAL truth is that religions were made up by ancient, ignorant people, and some still “have faith” today because they’re afraid of death and they like mystical, magical stories. I’ll take centuries of scientific research any day, over stories made up thousands of years ago by people who, compared to us, knew next to nothing.

March 19, 2012 at 6:15 pm
(10) james webb says:

does GOD need to adhere to law? HE knows all things, we hopefully are trying to learn “all things”, then we need open our minds to TRUTH…, ALL THINGS are ONE and the SAME.

March 19, 2012 at 10:26 pm
(11) james webb says:

“Everything is determined…by forces over which we have no control. It is determined for the insect as well as for the star. Human beings, vegetables, or cosmic dust—we all dance to a mysterious tune, intoned in the distance by an invisible piper.”

—Albert Einstein — Quoted in interview by G.S. Viereck , October 26,1929. Reprinted in “Glimpses of the Great”,1930

March 26, 2012 at 10:48 am
(12) Sidney Clouston says:

Carl Sagan said years ago that we are made of Star Stuff. So the
Bible in Genesis also said that we are made of the dust of the Earth.
The Holy Bible scripture goes on to say that God formed Man or Mankind (Adam) of the dust (in that “day”. He breathed in the breath of life and man becam a living soul. How long is a day for God ? The
spirit of man like God is eternal it is suggested by scripture, not the
temporal body. Apples and Oranges.

March 27, 2012 at 11:24 am
(13) Stephen says:

This is a nit. It seems highly likely that many of the hydrogen atoms in your body were never part of a star, but come directly from the Big Bang.

Faith is typically defined as belief without evidence. It sounds like useless, even dangerous foolishness. But we have no evidence that our efforts of the day won’t be wasted in the destruction of ourselves and everyone and everything we care about. Some disaster (litterally, “bad star”) like an asteroid coming down on us could erase all evidence of our existence. And what gets us through this is faith. Oh, i’m sure there are a few who can do the hand waving argument, that such an event is as likely than winning the lottery. But lots of people play the lottery.

I’m not suggesting that this argument means that God must exist. It’s just that it should be easy to understand why people believe it.

March 21, 2013 at 7:51 am
(14) medigap says:

Hi everyone, it’s my first pay a visit at this website, and piece of writing is really fruitful designed for me, keep up posting these articles.

December 7, 2013 at 10:58 am
(15) Ryan Fishel says:

Meaning and significance in the stars? So are we on the way back to sun god worship? Wouldn’t be surprised.

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