Last September I started a PhD in Astrophysics at Arizona State. I really enjoy doing public outreach and engaging in informal education, so as I learn new and awe-inspiring things I spend a lot of time thinking, “What’s so cool about this, and how do I explain it to my mother?” I think Carl Sagan expressed the motivation best in The Demon-Haunted World: “Not explaining science seems to me perverse. When you’re in love, you want to tell the world.” What set Carl apart, however, was his unique ability to articulate this love in a way that expressed his enthusiasm and was understandable to a wide audience. Your mother probably doesn’t want to sit through a stuffy lecture, even if the contents are astounding.
One of the most amazing discoveries of modern astrophysics is that almost all of the chemical elements we see around us were produced in supernovae – energetic explosions that typically mark the death throes of massive stars. Elements heavier than oxygen are disseminated mostly through supernovae, and elements heavier than iron come almost only from supernovae. This means that literally everything around you is full of atoms that were originally created in massive stars that exploded and sent those elements flying into interstellar space, where they eventually coalesced into dust and became you and the Earth you’re standing on.
Being a big fan of stickers you can put anywhere, I thought a sticker campaign would be the perfect cheeky way to engage in some informal education! I modeled them after the labels warning of cancer risk that you find on household chemicals, furniture, and almost every building in the state of California. They’re both factually correct, but while knowing that everything causes cancer is a buzzkill, knowing that everything came from supernovae is awesome.
The image I chose is one of my favorite Hubble Space Telescope pictures, the Antennae Galaxies. I’ve photoshopped the fake supernovae over the top. As always, there’s a Flickr set that will continue growing. Here are the source files so you can print some yourself – they’re intended for 2.5” x 2.5” sticker backs.