Did you know that if the sun were fueled by
combustion of, say, gasoline or wood, it would burn out in just a few millennia? So how is
it still here after 4.5 billion years? Physics. The sun is like a big nuclear submarine…
in the sky. That’s right – it’s fueled by nuclear reactions that fuse hydrogen atoms
together into helium and other heavier elements, releasing huge amounts of energy in the process.
In this way the sun is slowly converting its mass into energy – in the form of sunlight!
And it has more than enough fuel to last billions of years. But nuclear fusion’s no walk in the park – on
earth we need to heat hydrogen up 100x hotter than the sun to get a fusion reaction. So
how does the sun do it? Quantum tunneling. There’s a small chance (which I’ll explain
later) that hydrogen atoms, even if they aren’t quite hot enough for fusion, will fuse together
anyway. And the sun is SO big and has so much hydrogen that these small chances happen all
the time, and that’s what keeps the sun energized! So when the sun shines tomorrow, give thanks
to quantum mechanics.