We Are Made of Star-Stuff

Carl Sagan? Albert Durrant Watson? Doris Lessing? Harlow Shapley? Vincent Cronin? Ancient Serbian Proverb? William E. Barton? Anonymous?

milkyway01Dear Quote Investigator: The chemical elements of life such as carbon, magnesium, and calcium were originally created in the interior furnaces of stars and then released by stellar explosions. This fact can be expressed with a beautiful poetic resonance. Here are three examples:

We are made of star-stuff.
Our bodies are made of star-stuff.
There are pieces of star within us all.

I think the well-known astronomer and science communicator Carl Sagan said this. Could you trace this expression? Was Sagan the first person to say this?

Quote Investigator: In 1973 Carl Sagan published “The Cosmic Connection: An Extraterrestrial Perspective” which included the following passage. Boldface has been added here and below: 1

Our Sun is a second- or third-generation star. All of the rocky and metallic material we stand on, the iron in our blood, the calcium in our teeth, the carbon in our genes were produced billions of years ago in the interior of a red giant star. We are made of star-stuff.

Sagan was an important locus for the dissemination of this expression; however, it has a long history. An interesting precursor appeared in a North Carolina newspaper in 1913. A columnist pointed out that the Sun and Earth were made of star-stuff. This implied that humans were also made of star-stuff, but this was not directly stated: 2

The spectroscope analyzes the light if you please, and shows what it is made of. What was the surprise of the tireless searchers when they found common earth metals burning in the mighty sun!

There was once a little girl who cried out with joy when she realized for one little moment that the earth is truly a heavenly body, and that no matter what is happening to us we are really living right up among the stars. The sun is made of “star stuff, and the earth is made of the same material, put together with a difference.

In 1918 the President of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada delivered a speech with the phrase “our bodies are made of star-stuff”, and he seemed to be reaching for a quasi-spiritual interpretation for this fact: 3

It is true that a first thoughtful glimpse of the immeasurable universe is liable rather to discourage us with a sense of our own insignificance. But astronomy is wholesome even in this, and helps to clear the way to a realization that as our bodies are an integral part of the great physical universe, so through them are manifested laws and forces that take rank with the highest manifestation of Cosmic Being.

Thus we come to see that if our bodies are made of star-stuff,—and there is nothing else, says the spectroscope, to make them of—the loftier qualities of our being are just as necessarily constituents of that universal substance out of which are made

“Whatever gods there be.”

We are made of universal and divine ingredients, and the study of the stars will not let us escape a wholesome and final knowledge of the fact.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1921 a newspaper in Michigan introduced a new columnist with an advertisement that highlighted a version of the adage: 4

We’re All Made of Dust—
But It’s Star Dust!

Some comfort in that, says Dr. William E. Barton, the new contributor to The Evening News.

Astronomers know how to tell what sort of stuff those stars are made of—and how one bright speck up there in the sky lacks something other stars have.

Odd, though, that human beings have in their makeup about ALL the different elements of ALL those stars.

You’ll be interested in this, as Dr. Barton tells it—and in his comment, putting new zest in life for every human that’s made of star-stuff.

In 1929 the New York Times printed an article titled “The Star Stuff That Is Man” on the first page of the magazine section. The astronomer Harlow Shapley, director of Harvard College Observatory, was interviewed and stated the following: 5

We are made of the same stuff as the stars, so when we study astronomy we are in a way only investigating our remote ancestry and our place in the universe of star stuff. Our very bodies consist of the same chemical elements found in the most distant nebulae, and our activities are guided by the same universal rules.

The last statement of the article was also used as a caption for the illustration depicting a human figure with a backdrop of planets and galaxies:

We Are Made of Star Stuff and Are Part of a Magnificent Creation.

In 1971 the Nobel Laureate Doris Lessing touched on this theme in her novel “Briefing for a Descent into Hell”: 6

No one knows what has existed and has vanished beyond recovery, evidence for the number of times Man has understood and has forgotten again that his mind and flesh and life and movements are made of star stuff, sun stuff, planet stuff; …

In 1973 Carl Sagan published a book with the following statement as noted previously in this article:

We are made of star-stuff.

In 1978 “The Seven Mysteries of Life” by Guy Murchie was published. The book stated that “Most of the matter in the universe in fact is now known to pass at some time through the caldron of the stars.” Murchie included an intriguing adage that he labeled an “ancient Serbian proverb”. QI does not currently have adequate research tools for determining the age of this proverb: 7

When you can really grasp the universality of such relationships you have gained a new insight into the ancient Serbian proverb: “Be humble for you are made of dung. Be noble for you are made of stars.

In 1980 the landmark science series “Cosmos: A Personal Voyage” was televised, and Carl Sagan was the host and a co-writer. The first episode was titled “The Shores of the Cosmic Ocean”, and it included the following words spoken by Sagan: 8

The surface of the Earth is the shore of the cosmic ocean. On this shore we’ve learned most of what we know. Recently, we’ve waded a little way out, maybe ankle-deep, and the water seems inviting. Some part of our being knows this is where we came from. We long to return, and we can because the cosmos is also within us. We’re made of star stuff. We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.

In 1981 the writer Vincent Cronin published “The View from Planet Earth”, and it included a version of the adage: 9

Our bodies contain three grams of iron, three grams of bright, silver-white magnesium, and smaller amounts of manganese and copper. Proportionate to size, they are among the weightiest atoms in our bodies, and they come from the same source, a long-ago star. There are pieces of star within us all.

In 2006 the well-known skeptic Michael Shermer credited Sagan with the saying: 10

How can we connect to this vast cosmos? Sagan’s answer is both spiritually scientific and scientifically spiritual; “The cosmos is within us. We are made of star stuff,” he said, referring to the stellar origins of the chemical elements of life, which are cooked in the interiors of stars, then released in supernova explosions into interstellar space where they condense into a new solar system with planets, some of which have life that is composed of this star stuff.

In conclusion, Carl Sagan did employ a version of this saying by 1973. But the expression was in circulation decades before this. The astronomer Albert Durrant Watson used a version in a speech in 1918. In 1973 an interesting thematically related proverb appeared in a book together with the claim that the words were ancient. But the proverb’s accurate age is currently not known to QI.

(Special thanks to Joseph M. Moreno who inquired about the quotation credited to Vincent Cronin. Also, special thanks to Lim Pin who asked about the proverb categorized as Serbian.)

Notes:

  1. 1973, The Cosmic Connection: An Extraterrestrial Perspective by Carl Sagan, Produced by Jerome Agel, Quote Page 189 and 190, Anchor Press/Doubleday, Garden City, New York. (Verified on paper)
  2. 1913 June 15, Greensboro Daily News, Star Land by Ellen Frizell Wyckoff, Quote Page 8, Column 5, Greensboro, North Carolina. (GenealogyBank) (“analizes” was replaced with “analyzes” in the passage above)
  3. 1918 March, The Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, Volume 12, Number 3, Astronomy: A Cultural Avocation by Albert Durrant Watson, (Retiring President’s Address, Annual Meeting, January 29, 1918), Start Page 81, Quote Page 89, Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, Printed for the Society in Toronto, Canada. (HathiTrust) link
  4. 1921 January 24, Evening News, (Advertisement promoting a new contributor to the Evening News newspaper), Quote Page 2, Column 3, Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan. (GenealogyBank)
  5. 1929 August 11, New York Times, Section: New York Times Magazine, The Star Stuff That Is Man by H. Gordon Garbedian, Quote Page SM1, New York. (ProQuest)
  6. 2009 (Reprint of 1971 edition from Alfred A. Knopf, New York), Briefing for a Descent into Hell by Doris Lessing, Quote Page 180, Vintage Books/Random House, New York. (Amazon Look Inside)
  7. 1981 (Paperback reprint of original 1978 hardback), The Seven Mysteries of Life: An Exploration in Science & Philosophy by Guy Murchie, Quote Page 402, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (Verified with scans)
  8. YouTube video, Title: Carl Sagan – Profound Words of Wisdom, Uploaded on Jan 22, 2011, Uploaded by: godisafrauddotcom. (Quotation starts at 1 minute 58 seconds of 2 minutes 33 seconds) (This video excerpt is from the television series Cosmos; broadcast in 1980; Episode: The Shores of the Cosmic Ocean; Sagan delivers the line during an introductory speech near the beginning of episode), (Accessed on youtube.com on June 21, 2013) link
  9. 1981, The View from Planet Earth: Man Looks at the Cosmos by Vincent Cronin, Quote Page 282, William Morrow and Company, Inc., New York. (Verified with scans)
  10. 2007 (Reprint of 2006 hardcover from Times Books), Why Darwin Matters by Michael Shermer, Quote Page 158, Owl Books/Henry Holt, New York. (Google Books Preview)