Through ELEMENTS, we want to understand how heavy elements, such as gold, formed in our universe. Gold is all around us, but it did not originate on our planet, nor did it come from the stars, which produce very few heavy elements. That means it must have originated somewhere else, and what is fascinating is that it appears that gold is actually produced in a very extreme process: the collision of two neutron stars! Realising that the answer to simple questions hides a fascinating scenario is what drives us to conduct fundamental research.
When you imagine how two neutron stars merge to produce a black hole, you just think “Wow! It’s amazing what can happen in nature”. Although discovering the details of how this process takes place will not have an immediate impact on our lives, it is a complex and extraordinary phenomenon that simply begs to be explored.
A first milestone would be to know how much mass is lost when two neutron stars collide. Is it 0.1 percent or 1 percent of a solar mass? We can begin to answer this question by performing complex numerical simulations that describe this process. This is only the first step, but an important one towards understanding how this lost mass can then produce gold and other heavy elements.
The largest obstacle is complexity. We are dealing here with an extremely complex process where numerous microphysical and macrophysical questions need to be addressed. This is something that no single person or my research group alone could answer, at least not without having a few centuries of time to do so. Such questions can only be answered by a very large team of scientists working together.
In science, failure – and not success! – is the norm. Each time we take a small step forward, it is because we fell down at least three times before. I advise my students to do the same: Don’t get too upset when something goes wrong, don’t take it personally and just persevere. Success is waiting at the next attempt.