Before There Were Stars

The universe is the grandest merger story that there is. Complete with mysterious origins, forces of light and darkness, and chemistry complex enough to make the chemical conglomerate BASF blush, the trip from the first moments after the Big Bang to the formation of the first stars is a story of coming together at length scales spanning many orders of magnitude. To piece together this story, scientists have turned to the skies, but also to the laboratory to simulate some of the most extreme environments in the history our universe. The resulting narrative is full of surprises. Not least among these, is how nearly it didn’t happen—and wouldn’t have, without the roles played by some unlikely heroes. Two of the most important, at least when it comes to the formation of stars, which produced the heavier elements necessary for life to emerge, are a bit surprising: dark matter and molecular hydrogen. Details aside, here is their story.

Dark Matter

The Big Bang created matter through processes we still do not fully understand. Most of it—around 84 percent

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