How the Universe Made the Elements in the Periodic Table

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A Frontiers in Science Lecture to celebrate 2019, the International Year of the Periodic Table

The creation of the elements in the universe took billions of years and required various processes.

The first few minutes of the big bang produced only hydrogen (H) and helium (He). No new elements were formed until a few hundred million years later when the first generation of stars were born and they started fusing H and He into slightly higher-mass elements, such as carbon and oxygen. Various fusion reactions by multiple generations of stars eventually created elements up to iron (Fe).

However, normal stars cannot produce elements beyond Fe. Creation of elements heavier than Fe required the cataclysmic explosions of supernovas. These violent deaths of massive stars not only completed the natural elements in the periodic table. They also enabled human life, because certain life processes require heavy elements.

About the Speaker
James “Jim” Sowell is an astronomer at Georgia Tech and the director of the Georgia Tech Observatory. He has taught Georgia Tech’s two Introductory Astronomy courses for 27 years and the advanced Stellar Astrophysics course for 20 years. 

He won the inaugural CETL Undergraduate Educator Award in 2009.  He often performs public outreach and education, including the widely popular, monthly Public Nights at the Observatory; presentations at schools; and workshops for K-12 teachers. He developed the Aloha Telescope. This remotely controlled facility in Hawaii allows Atlanta area K-12 teachers and students to view live images of the Moon during regular school hours. 

Sowell earned B.S. and M.S. degrees from Vanderbilt University and a Ph.D. from the University of Michigan. He joined Georgia Tech in 1989.

About Frontiers in Science Lectures
Lectures in this series are intended to inform, engage, and inspire students, faculty, staff, and the public on developments, breakthroughs, and topics of general interest in the sciences and mathematics. Lecturers tailor their talks for nonexpert audiences.

About the Periodic Table Frontiers in Science Lecture Series
Throughout 2019, the College of Sciences will bring prominent researchers from Georgia Tech and beyond to expound on little-discussed aspects of chemical elements:

  • Feb. 6, James Sowell, How the Universe Made the Elements in the Periodic Table
  • March 5, Michael Filler, Celebrating Silicon: Its Success, Hidden History, and Next Act
  • April 2, John Baez, University of California, Riverside, Mathematical Mysteries of the Periodic Table
  • April 18, Sam Kean, Author, The Periodic Table: A Treasure Trove of Passion, Adventure, Betrayal, and Obsession
  • Sept. 12, Monica Halka, The Elusive End of the Periodic Table: Why Chase It?
  • October, Taka Ito, Turning Sour, Bloated, and Out of Breath: Ocean Chemistry under Global Warming (This will take place on the Thursday of Homecoming Week 2019)
  • Nov. 12, Margaret Kosal, The Geopolitics of Rare and Not-So-Rare Elements

Closest public parking is Visitors Area 2, on Ferst Street by the Student Center, http://pts.gatech.edu/visitors#l3  

Refreshments served after every lecture


  • Workflow Status: Published
  • Created By: sniebuhr3
  • Created: 01/10/2019
  • Modified By: A. Maureen Rouhi
  • Modified: 01/10/2019