Stardust and Cosmic Water

images-2“Water, water everywhere,” Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote. He didn’t know the fraction of water’s ubiquitousness!

My usual water focus includes its importance as more than a resource, important as that is. Water, in its many forms, deserves our respect for other reasons, such as these:
– It is the origin of, and requirement for, life on Earth;
– It is a revelation of the Creator; it is sacred;
– It is an essential component of life (e.g., blood) and for enriching our lives;
– It helps us  “metaphor” divinity;
– its precarious future because of climate chaos, waste, and pollution.

Those using my “I Thirst” reflection this Lent will spend time reflecting on water and how it enables and enriches our lives. Understandably, “. . . nor any drop to drink” [sic] is a mighty fearsome possibility!

Origins of Earth’s Water 

In the Genesis version (which is respected as fertile myth but not historical account),images-3 water is the “watery abyss” that’s just there. God creates sky to separate the water under and above the sky/heaven. God gathers the water into one place so that land appears. “He named the pooled water Ocean.” (Gen. 1: 10) Water, a progeny of stardust,  predominates on our planet and is one source of our unity. I want to share some things I’ve learned (primarily from The Stardust Revolution by Jacob Berkowitz) that expand my understanding of water’s being “everywhere.”

Readers might know what follows, but no matter how much we already know about water, reviewing or learning more always seems to be a source of wonder. Maybe that’s because we’re learning about our ancestry! (Berkowitz: “We’re really made up of trillions of bags of water — our cells.”) Increased wonder was certainly true for me as I delved into facts discovered since the 1920’s about water — beyond Earth. I was and am also awed that humans have figured out ways to discover these facts. It earned Nobel Prizes for several scientists, and certainly earns them my respect and gratitude.

images-4For decades I thought water on Earth was the result of steam turning to rain and deluging the land. Relatively recently, I learned that water on Earth most probably came from comets and asteroids that regularly strike Earth. I admit I didn’t think much about how water got into them.

Scientific breakthroughs

Prior to the 1920’s, people thought the Universe was dry. In 1927, scientists at Bell Labs in New Jersey accidentally tuned in to the cosmos and heard radio waves. These waves are the principle behind radar, which eventually led to experiments in locating and identifying molecules that permeate the universe, the remains of supernovas and even of the Big Bang.

It turns out that the radio wavelengths of elements emit distinct signatures; each broadcasts a particular frequency. First scientists discovered vast, diffuse clouds of hydrogen, the element that had its origin in the first flaring forth. Researchers knew that hydrogen was abundant and the basic building block of the cosmos. That hydrogen atoms were “out there” was not too amazing.

Astronomers believed that molecules could not form or survive beyond Earth. Finding molecules in the cosmos — two or more atoms bonded together to form a chemical compound — would be a “quantum leap” in the non-scientific understanding of that word. Free-floating molecules rotate, vibrate, or both. This forms a unique fingerprint, making it possible for scientists to identify – and potentially find — each chemical. And in time, scientists did find them!

By 1937 “as simple a molecule as there is,” composed of a single carbon atom joined with a single atom of hydrogen — carbon hydride — had been discovered. Ammonia, too, had been discovered. Would it be possible to discover water molecules in the cosmos?

Discovery of Cosmic Water! 

Most people know that three atoms are required to form a water images-5molecule (H2O):
2 of hydrogen, the most common element from the Big Bang, plus
1 of oxygen, the most common element formed by stars.

The very next year, 1938, Charles Townes and his research group identified this three-partner dance in the cosmos — water! I either didn’t know or didn’t care at the time. Did you, if you were born by then?

And why might one care? Well, it’s good to live in the real world. Cosmic water is part of the story of who you and I are, the story of where we live. Genesis helped us think that water was not only always part of Earth, but was uniquely here. We thought Earth had cornered the water market! Turns out we needed a major thought-revision.

images-7Our beautiful, blue, wet planet is floating in a Universe awash in water in some form, mostly very cold gas or ice.
Ice is found around new stars and old ones;
it’s near black holes as well as in the heart of galaxies;
it forms around dust grains and it is frozen in ice balls.
Astronomers have detected water vapor whose light fingerprint had traveled from 12 billion years ago, and
the amount in the Universe is staggering. 

Stardust Connections

None of this water was “just here” in the cosmos; each single water molecule was formed from stardust elements!

How could we ever comprehend the creativity, the love, the source of this? Indeed, “The heavens are telling the glory of God!” (Ps. 19:1) images-8

Many Earthlings enjoy being in or near moving water: rivers, lakes, oceans, pools, even bath tubs. We instinctively feel a unity, a peace, a renewal.

Knowledge about cosmic water and our mutual beginnings from stardust can add to our feeling united to the entire Universe!

Ice Connections

Much of the North has had a lot of ice this winter — for better and for worse. We might now feel more united with cosmic ice when we enjoy ice skating and hockey, when we are awed by ice formations, when we plop ice cubes to cool our drinks.


Call to

It turns out that Earth is just one more place within the Cosmos where ice exists — and we have the awareness to appreciate it wherever it is!
Let’s deepen our appreciation of water everywhere on World Water Day March 22.
Let’s deepen it during Lent when we read stories about water and think about our sacraments.
Let’s deepen it whenever we look out at the heavens.
And, for sure, let’s deepen it by using Earth’s water reverently and sustainably.
Let’s not take it for granted!
Let’s stop individual and industrial pollution, waste, and contributions to climate change.

To adapt St. Francis’ words: Let us praise you, Lord, for Sister Water . . . .

One thought on “Stardust and Cosmic Water

  1. Pingback: March 22 | Sisters of St. Joseph

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