Communion Of Dreams

Stellar evolution.
January 9, 2008, 11:06 am
Filed under: A.P.O.D., Alzheimer's, Astronomy, Carl Sagan, Hospice, Science, Sir Arthur Eddington, Space

I commented via email to a close friend yesterday about the persistent fever my MIL has been running, 2 to 2.5 degrees above her normal. We’d seen fevers come and go for the last several months, but this one seems to have settled in for a while. I got back this:

Any particular reason for it, or is she just being like a star that’s going into its final flameout?

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

Like my friend, I grew up after the basic mechanisms of stellar evolution were pretty well understood. What I learned long ago, and seems to still hold basically true is this: stars in the main sequence will develop, go through an initial process of fusion converting hydrogen into helium, and then will evolve one of several ways depending upon initial mass. Small to medium-sized stars will make it into the helium fusion phase (primarily producing oxygen, nitrogen and carbon), before burning out and eventually becoming a white dwarf. Larger stars can go on to greatness, however, and in the sequence of their lives (including supernova) produce all the natural elements we know in a process known as nucleosynthesis. Either way, massive amounts of material are stripped away from the star and disseminated out into the universe through explosion, solar wind, and other similar mechanisms.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

What is oldest, lasts longest. That is the basic equation to understanding Alzheimer’s.

Generalizing: First, the person with Alzheimer’s will lose the ability to learn new skills. Then the most recent memories will slip, and each succeeding layer of memory acquired in their life will melt away. Metaphorically, they are being deconstructed – like some great skyscraper which is slowly dismantled from the top down, floor by floor. Compare this to other diseases and injuries, which are more like an implosion of consciousness, collapsing in on itself all at once.

Because of the way the disease progresses, layer after layer of experience and memory being peeled away, the patient regresses through life, becoming once again a child in many ways. This is likely the origin of the notion that the elderly experience a “second childhood” with dementia.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

Looking back over the last three or four months, it has been a difficult time. I read the posts I’ve made here on the topic, and am frankly surprised that things have been as bad as they have been for as long as they have been. No wonder I am exhausted, even with the extra help we’re getting thanks to Hospice.

Yesterday was a bad day. Whether because of the fever, or just her deteriorating condition, my MIL was really in a state of constant confusion about everything starting first thing in the morning. Nothing was easy, and she needed near-constant reassurance and supervision. Then, shortly after I had gotten her up from her afternoon nap, she evidently had another TIA, and for a while only spoke gibberish – complete word salad. Needless to say, this was frightening for her, and she was almost combative in response. After an hour or so she rallied, but it was still a difficult evening until we got her to bed.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

We are made of star stuff.

– Carl Sagan, Cosmos.

Ever since Sir Arthur Eddington sorted out the hydrogen fusion theory of star fuel, which led to the understanding of how the elements are created, there has been a growing awareness that we are, quite literally, the stuff of stars. All of the atoms in our bodies were likely forged in the fusion furnaces of stars now long gone.

And those atoms are shared around. Recycled. I remember seeing somewhere a fun calculation that all of us – each and every person alive – carries with them something like 200 atoms which were in the body of Jesus (or, say Nero, Hitler, et cetera…). Whether a person is eaten by a predator, or their body allowed to decompose in the ground, or burned on a pyre, their atoms just go back into circulation and eventually make their way into all of us.

And one day our own sun will change from a hydrogen-fusing star to a helium-fusing star, if only for a little while. It will likely swell up into being a red giant, and when it does it will consume Earth, or atomize it and blast it into space.

So yes, my friend, in a very literal way, my MIL is exactly like a star that’s going into its final flameout. And I find that oddly comforting. And beautiful.

Jim Downey

(Cross posted to UTI.)

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