The origin of the elements: A century of progress

Jennifer A. Johnson, Brian D. Fields, Todd A. Thompson

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review


This review assesses the current state of knowledge of how the elements were produced in the Big Bang, in stellar lives and deaths, and by interactions in interstellar gas. We begin with statements of fact and discuss the evidence that convinced astronomers that the Sun is fusing hydrogen, that low-mass stars produce heavy elements through neutron capture, that massive stars can explode as supernovae and that supernovae of all types produce new elements. Nucleosynthesis in the Big Bang, through cosmic ray spallation, and in exploding white dwarfs is only ranked below the above facts in certainty because the evidence, while overwhelming, is so far circumstantial. Next, we highlight the flaws in our current understanding of the predictions for lithium production in the Big Bang and/or its destruction in stars and for the production of the elements with atomic number Z∼45. While the theory that neutron star mergers produce elements through neutron-capture has powerful circumstantial evidence, we are unconvinced that they produce all of the elements past nickel. Also in dispute is the exact mechanism or mechanisms that cause the white dwarfs to explode. It is difficult to determine the origin of rare isotopes because signatures of their production are weak. We are uncertain about the production sites of some lithium and nitrogen isotopes and proton-rich heavy nuclei. Finally, Betelgeuse is probably not the next star to become a supernovae in the Milky Way, in part because Betelgeuse may collapse directly to a black hole instead. The accumulated evidence in this review shows that we understand the major production sites for the elements, but islands of uncertainty in the periodic table exist. Resolving these uncertainties requires in particular understanding explosive events with compact objects and understanding the nature of the first stars and is therefore primed for new discoveries in the next decades. This article is part of the theme issue 'Mendeleev and the periodic table'.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number20190301
JournalPhilosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A: Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Sciences
Issue number2180
StatePublished - Sep 18 2020


  • cosmic rays
  • neutrinos
  • nucleosynthesis
  • radioactivity
  • stars
  • supernovae

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Engineering(all)
  • Physics and Astronomy(all)
  • Mathematics(all)


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