In an all-too-appropriate tribute to prolific Astronomer Carl Sagan on his birthday, the fact that scientists have discovered structures in neutron stars that are reminiscent of structures observed in human cells only reinforces the idea that we are made of starstuff.
All matter in the Universe – including the Earth and all of us – is made up of the same material and metals thrown out into space from dying stars. Therefore, it would be a little bit of an understatement to say that we are made of stardust.
According to a study published in the journal Physical Review C, neutron stars and human cellular cytoplasm share a strange similarity: layered structures that look like parking garages.
The Cosmic Connection Between Human Cells and Neutron Stars
In simulating the structure of a neutron star’s crust, physicists instead identified characteristics similar to those observed in the cell membranes.
Their findings suggest that although neutron stars and membranes differ in their density, their structure may be determined by the same geometric constraints.
Greg Huber, co-author of the study and soft condensed-matter physicist at the University of California – Santa Barbara, observed in cells structures made of evenly stacked sheets separated by even spacing and connected by spiral ramps in the endoplasmic reticulum.
Huber then dubbed these structures “Terasaki ramps” referring to biologist Mark Terasaki, the first to describe the structures and to their resemblance with parking garages. Huber had concluded that these “parking garages” were unique to soft matter until he stumbled on the work of nuclear physicist Charles Horowitz.
“The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of starstuff.”
― Carl Sagan,
Horowitz found that deep in a neutron star’s crust, there is a dense mixture of particles that tend to collect in areas separated by voids. He called these structures “nuclear pasta” for their resemblance to spaghetti and lasagna.
These same structures that in appear in neutron stars in particular and in quantum mechanics generally, also appear in drastically different environments like in living cells and in cellular biology.
Despite the differences in physical conditions involved (such as scale, temperature, density, and pressure), Horowitz notes that this similarity across disciplines suggests the existence of a universal principle. “Seeing very similar shapes in such strikingly different systems,” said Charles Horowitz, “suggests that the energy of a system may depend on its shape in a simple and universal way.”
Writing the Laws of “Transphysics“
Beyond indicating a possible universal principle of organizing matter, this discovery might also indicate still unknown physical laws.
As such, the structures have piqued the interest of theoretical and nuclear physicists alike. Martin Savage, professor of Nuclear Physics at the University of Washington commented that the fact that “similar phases of matter emerge in biological systems was very surprising” to him. He continued by noting that “there is clearly something interesting here.”