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You are Star Dust

This is the story of the "You Are Star Dust" poster that Jerry Wasserburg had at the "Nuclear Astrophysics 2007" (NA2007) conference held in July 2007 at Caltech. NA2007 celebrated 50 years since the publication of the seminal works of Burbidge, Burbidge, Fowler, and Hoyle, and A. G. W. Cameron.

My story began when I found a 1960's-era Caltech PR book "The Range of Research" on a table outside the Caltech Bookstore in the 1980's. I was visiting my daughter Dawn, living the life of a mole on her floor in Blacker House.

My Ph.D. is in nuclear physics and I was as struck by William Fowler's essay in that book as I was as a student by his research into stellar reactions. Fowler wrote "We, too, are star dust." What a beautifully succinct summary of his physics.

My interests evolved into broader questions about the connections of physics with the spacetime curvature of the Universe, described in the Universe sections on this web site. The synoptic summary of my results is "You are the universe."

One frivolous morning in November 2006, I decided to make a poster capturing these two powerful ideas with compelling graphics. I have always loved James Montgomery Flagg's "I Want You" World War I recruiting poster for the U.S. Army.

I considered lots of ideas, including several of my own, and explored the origin and use of Flagg's idea. It seems Flagg's Uncle Sam had roots in John Bull, a national personification of the Kingdom of Great Britain created by Dr. John Arbuthnot in 1712. But Flagg's was the best and I used it.

To Flagg's Uncle Sam, I added my two summary statements and, at the bottom in Russian,

Изба Физических Проблем
имени Э. Шрёдингера

Джеймсу Монтгомери Флаггу

The first two lines comprise the name of the affiliate to our Institute in Kittitas and the second two acknowledge and thank Flagg. (ИФП, short for Изба Физических Проблем, is our home and used that way in our site links.

Costco printed two copies of my poster and I sent one to Dawn and stapled the other up in the Изба by the blackboard. Dawn put hers up in her office at UC Davis where she is a Professor of Geology. I had no further plans. Two posters for the world were enough.

In the Spring of 2007, Wasserburg visited UC Davis and gave a couple of talks. Dawn had graduated from Caltech in Jerry's department and he came by to talk geology with her. As Dawn later told me, Jerry kept looking at the poster and finally asked her if she knew where he could get one.

Dawn put us in touch with each other and I tweaked the poster a little, Costco printed two more, and I sent them to Jerry. At NA2007, he used it as the concluding slide in his presentation and had it on the piano as Tom Lehrer's classic "The Elements" was played at the conference banquet at the Athenaeum.

Jerry sent me a copy of his version signed by the conference participants. I treasure this, especially for the signatures of Jerry and the Burbidges and for the idea that pure play can lead in such unexpected directions.

The final surprise was when I got an email out of the blue from May Chiao, Senior Editor at Nature Physics, asking if I would object to it being published. Wow!

Bill Sumner