Every time you squirt toothpaste on your toothbrush, you could be brushing your teeth with the stars. And by “stars”, I don’t mean celebrities, but our sun’s ancestors.
Fluorine is a chemical element that appears in our toothpaste and chewing gum. You’ll often hear it called “fluoride,” which simply means that the fluorine is in the form of an ion (the fluoride ion, F-). Fluorine is often used to prevent cavities, but up until now, we didn’t really have any idea of where it originally came from.
Researchers from the U.S., Ireland, and Sweden have found evidence to support the theory that fluorine was formed in red giants, which are heavy stars at the end of their lifespan. The material from these dead stars became the sun and the planets in our solar system. Using a powerful telescope in Hawaii, researchers detected fluorine in stars of different ages by measuring the light emitted, which is possible because each element gives off different wavelengths of light. Next, researchers will explore the possibility of fluorine formation in the early universe, before any red giants existed, to determine if fluorine might be produced in different environments (like black holes, perhaps) and to discover if the process is different.
Surprisingly, most elements are actually formed in stars, and understanding the processes of their formation can give us insight into our early universe. For now, I’ll just think about where the ingredients of my toothpaste came from and hope that brushing with them will make my teeth twinkle like the night sky.