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What’s the heaviest thing in the universe?

Clue: it’s not the shopping bags you’ll lug out of the supermarket tomorrow - but it does fit neatly into a teaspoon

When you think “heavy” things, schoolbags, handbags and shopping bags come to mind. Overheard every day at a shopping centre is: “What’s in here, lead weights?” as bags are handed over to the designated heavy lifter.

Lead is a stable metal that’s often used as weights and sinkers. The reason it’s heavy in terms of mass per unit volume (or think about it as per teaspoon), is because the lead atoms are very close, making it a dense material.

The expression “it went down like a lead balloon” actually needs to be updated to “osmium balloon”. Osmium is one of the heaviest materials on earth, weighing twice as much as lead per teaspoon.

Osmium is a chemical element in the platinum group metals; it’s often used as alloys in electrical contacts and fountain pen nibs.

An osmium bead. Picture: Jurii. Wikipedia via Creative Commons
An osmium bead. Picture: Jurii. Wikipedia via Creative Commons

As for the heaviest, most dense substances in the known universe, Associate Professor Andrew Melatos from the University of Melbourne’s School of Physics says that would have to be the insides of a neutron star.

“A teaspoon of neutron star would weigh around a billion tons.”

According to the NASA website, that’s about the same as Mt Everest.

The birth of a neutron star is essentially the collapse of a giant burnt out star, a sun that is 10 to 100 times bigger than our own sun. “As a giant sun burns out it uses up all its fuel. Gravity is then so strong it collapses in on itself. The pressure is so intense that it explodes into a spectacular Super Nova spewing gas everywhere. For a few seconds it outshines the other 100 billion stars in our galaxy.

A neutron star, as imagined by NASA.
A neutron star, as imagined by NASA.

“What’s left behind is a tightly packed ball of neutrons – a neutron star – which is about 30km across, roughly the size of Melbourne, but it has the mass of a giant sun packed into it, so it’s insanely dense.”

Associate Professor Melatos studies neutron stars. Their high density means their gravity is strong and allows for the study of gravity waves, which will provide clues to the fabric of space and time as predicted by Einstein in 1916. “But don’t panic, our sun won’t burn out for another five billion years,” he says.

“Our sun is a small size star. It won’t become a neutron star, but it will burn up all the hydrogen and helium, and become a red giant. At that point our sun will gobble up surrounding planets including Earth, nuclear reaction will continue to transform helium into carbon and it will be like a giant Earth-sized diamond, at which point it is called a white dwarf.

So massive stars become neutron stars – the heaviest things in the universe – and even more massive stars become black holes.

Massive stars. And some bags.

Banner Image: Pixabay

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