Category Archives: Doris Lessing

We Are Made of Star-Stuff

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

milkyway09Dear 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.

Continue reading

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