The Greatest of All the Stars

Kolob is probably the most talked-about star in Mormon history–for good and bad. And today, we’re gonna talk about it even more because there is definitely more to this famous star than meets the eye.

We already know that Kolob was the first creation, and the eldest or first star to form in our universe, and that’s a big deal (see The First Creation). But in addition to that, we are also told that Kolob is the “greatest” star, and, considering what we know about science today, that is also a very big deal. 

In 1842, Joseph Smith told us that the first star was also the greatest star, and astrophysicists today would probably find that an acceptable hypothesis. Here are the details:

Joseph Smith’s Kolob Deets

In the third chapter of the Book of Abraham, Father Abraham is shown the stars, and says, “And I saw the stars, that they were very great.” He sees that one of those great stars “was nearest unto the throne of God; and there were many great ones which were near unto it.”

“These are the governing ones,” the Lord then tells Abraham, “and the name of the great one is Kolob… I have set this one to govern all those which belong to the same order as that upon which thou standest… Kolob is the greatest of all the Kokaubeam [stars] that thou hast seen.” (Abraham 3:2-16)

That’s what the Book of Abraham has to say about Kolob’s greatness. It’s worth adding a couple little lines from Joseph Smith’s Grammar and Alphabet of the Egyptian Language, which says that Kolob is “the greatest body of the heavenly bodies that ever was discovered by man,” and is “the first great grand governing fixed star.”

Abraham sees the stars and sees that they are great; and the greatest star that Abraham sees during his vision is Kolob. In fact, we’re told the greatest astronomical body that any man (or prophet such as Abraham or Methuselah) had ever discovered is Kolob. I think the message is pretty clear: Kolob is the greatest star to ever live.

What does “great” mean?

Now what do these statements mean by “greatest”? Well, just look up the word in a dictionary and you’ll see there could be a lot of different definitions. Greatest could mean the coolest, the most high-ranking, the most important, etc. When it comes to stars, it makes a lot of sense for greatest to mean most massive, largest, or brightest. Those aren’t the only relevant definitions we could come up with for stars, but in this post, we’re going to talk about how Kolob’s greatness applies to only those three characteristics, especially the most massive–because for stars, mass is probably the most important factor in establishing a star’s place in the story of the cosmos.

Massiveness

The most massive star that we know of today weighs 265 solar masses, but models suggest that the first stars, the Population III giants, could reach and exceed 1,000 solar masses in weight. ONE THOUSAND. The mass of one Sun is 1.989×10^30 kg, so a thousand of those is a truly insane amount of matter to be packed into a single body. Immediately, your Kolob alarm should be going off, because, as the first star in the universe, Kolob had to have been a Population III star. As such, that means Kolob could have had over 1,000 times the mass of our Sun. It could have been the most massive star ever.

Now, when it comes to mass, Population III stars are special. According to our current understanding of science, Population III stars were the most massive stars in history, far outperforming the masses of stars alive today. And that’s why if Joseph Smith’s “greatest” means “most massive”, then it’s a pretty incredible detail he added about the old star. Kolob was the first creation in the universe, and thus the first star in the universe. As the first star, Kolob would have been a Population III star. And as a Population III star, it’s already a potential admission into the Stellar-Mass Hall of Fame–an elite club where only Population III stars are allowed because only they could grow to be the most massive. We’ll explain how this works below.

As for “greatest” meaning “biggest” or “brightest”, there is some connection with a star’s total mass and how big it gets and how bright it shines. I don’t completely understand it, but generally, the more mass a star has, the more energy it outputs and the brighter it can be. Being the lumbering behemoths they were, the Population III stars were a very luminous bunch, so Kolob could have been the brightest star ever. As the eldest star, it definitely would have held the title for brightest star for at least a little bit, right?… you know, before all the other stars were born.

Y Scuti, one of the largest stars discovered, compared to the Sun. Stars can get scary big.

The mass vs size relationship is a bit trickier to pin down for me, but I’d say that the early Population III stars were giants when it comes to size too–I just can’t say for certain they were the largest stars ever. The reason for this is that one of the largest-known stars has a mass of only 30 Suns, while the heaviest star we know is 265 solar masses. Unfortunately for this discussion, the density of stars does not remain constant, and it’s way above my paygrade to figure it out.

Why were the first stars the most massive?

Now it’s time for me to try to explain the science behind this all. Why is it important that Kolob was said to be the earliest star and the greatest star?

In an article appropriately titled “Why Were The First Stars Much Larger Than Even Today’s Biggest Ones?”, Astronomer Ethan Siegel explains why the earliest stars could grow to such ridiculous sizes (and masses).

It’s a lot of complicated physics that I don’t understand, but if I’m not too far off, the gist of it is this (I think): the longer a gas cloud that’s collapsing into a star takes to cool down, the bigger, more massive the star is going to get. Heavy elements like metals cool down faster than just plain old atomic hydrogen, so gas clouds with any metals in them will produce smaller stars than clouds with no metals. The very first stars all formed in gas clouds that contained no metals (because metals hadn’t been created yet), so the first generation of stars contained the most massive stars in universe history. If you remember, it’s inside of stars that elements heavier than helium (or metals) are made, so the very earliest stars formed from pristine, metal-free clumps of chaotic matter (see Stars are Creators). After these first stars, metals were now a thing and had begun polluting the cosmos, so subsequent stars could no longer grow as enormous as their founding predecessors. Here’s how Ethan describes it:

“The larger your star-forming region, the more mass gets locked up in heavier, higher-mass stars. Without heavy metals, you don’t have dust to cool your clumps down, which means the smaller clumps get washed out and don’t form. It’s only the largest clumps in the largest clusters that have a chance, and that leads to ultra-massive stars that have less competition for accumulating mass than even the most massive stars today have. It isn’t merely the presence or absence of heavy elements that leads to more massive stars directly, but the fact that metal-free stars can only form in extremely massive regions at all, and that those regions will be dominated by the most massive, fastest-growing clumps inside them. That’s why we think that among the very first stars, they may have reached or exceeded 1,000 solar masses at the extremes.”

There are some other factors to getting ultra-massive stars. One that may be applicable here–if I understand correctly–is that a star forming near an existing star tends to lose mass due to the stellar winds of the existing star, and thus won’t grow as large as it otherwise would. The first stars were, well, the first, so there weren’t other stars yet to blow material away from them, and that allowed them to keep amassing hydrogen and get BIG. And this leads us to ask:

Was the first star the most massive star ever? 

The answer to that question is: We don’t know… well, at least, I don’t know. We can’t really know for certain either. But, as a very untrained, armchair, amateur astrophysicist, I would say it’s likely. If the most giant stars form in places where there are little metals and little competition, then the first star would have formed in a place with no metals and no competition. Therefore, it makes sense that it would grow to be the mightiest in mass since it could. But that’s just me being wishful. I can’t really back it up with more than that. It is definitely possible that the first star to form in the universe wasn’t the heaviest, but we can’t know without observing it–and being some 13+ billion years ago, we can’t. The truth is that all we can say is that the heaviest celestial body has to be among the earliest stars. And that gives Kolob a fighting chance. Joseph Smith wouldn’t have known that in 1842, yet he wrote about the first star being the greatest of all.

“First Light”: Simulated image of the first star in the universe. Credits: Simulation: John Wise, Tom Abel; Visualization: Ralf Kaehler

What if Kolob actually was the most massive star ever?

What if Kolob really was the record-holder? I’m no astrophysicist, but the largest theoretical mass for a star I could find on the internet is 100,000 solar masses. Yes, according to a 2015 article, computer simulations show that a 1-million-solar-mass gas cloud, in the right early-universe conditions, could collapse into a star weighing 100,000 Suns. That is freakishly enormous. There is a downside, however–depending on how you feel about black holes. Such a 100k-solar-mass star, says the article, “would be unstable, and would immediately collapse into a black hole,” eventually becoming a quasar. How immediately it would stop being a star and start being a black hole, I don’t know; but its fate would be sealed.

With some more digging you’d find that, actually, one doesn’t have to weigh 100,000 Suns to become a black hole. It seems like any star above 300 solar masses is probably destined to morph into a black hole at its death anyway. The first generation of stars were monsters, but many of them likely died and live on as black holes today.

So, if Kolob truly was the “greatest”, heaviest star in the history of the universe, then it is possible that it lived a very short life and ended up as a black hole–maybe even a supermassive black hole at the center of a galaxy somewhere. This possibility is very interesting (and we’ll talk more about this in a future post), because many people have speculated that Kolob is located in the middle of our beloved Milky Way. Kolob, for all we know, could be dead, yet holds our galaxy together. Chew on that for a while.

So what is so great about Kolob?

Joseph Smith gave us the Book of Abraham, one of the most controversial books of scripture that we have. In this book, he introduced us to a star named Kolob. This star, we are told, is not only the oldest star ever, it’s also the “greatest” star ever–two things that, when taken together in light of today’s stellar research, are simply remarkable. What are the chances that an uneducated farmer in 1842 would know that the first stars in the universe were also the greatest?

Assuming, of course, that “greatest” meant “biggest in mass”, Joseph Smith was, once again, right on the money about something that he shouldn’t (and couldn’t) have known. The fact he preceded years of astronomical discovery on this little detail is simply amazing. It’s not that Joseph said Kolob is the most massive star; it’s that he said it’s the biggest star AND the first star (I have to keep saying it because it’s just too cool!). Those two things about Kolob merit so much more attention than they currently receive–because according to modern science, the biggest star ever also had to have been one of the first stars ever too. The most massive of all stars could only have been so as a Population III star.

Critics have a lot of fun with Kolob. You may have noticed this. On the surface, the idea of a mystical star that governs everything around us with an unknown energy looks utterly ridiculous. But I’d bet that most critics haven’t considered the things we’ve discussed today in this post. Have they thought how novel it was for Joseph Smith to make up a star, call it the first body made in this creation, and also declare it the “greatest” body in this creation too? From an astrophysicist’s point of view, that is consistent with the accepted chronology of the universe. Maybe there’s more to the Kolob star than a superficial reading provides?

Image from website critical of Kolob and other LDS beliefs.

Kolob may seem like something that’s worth a good laugh and a profanity-laden YouTube video, but if you look deeper, you may find a small nugget of information in Joseph Smith’s writings that he only could have gotten right if he had lived in the late 20th century and been keeping up with his science (and just so you know, he died before the half-way mark of the 19th century). So, the burning question remains: How did he get this right?

I’m open to suggestions.


To end this post, I’ve included a little timeline of thought and discovery on the subject of stellar masses. It’s by no means comprehensive.

TIMELINE

  • Late 1500s: Tycho Brahe estimates the angular diameter of some stars
  • 1564-1642: Galileo thinks all stars are the same diameter as the Sun
  • 1637: Jeremiah Horrocks concludes that stars “were mere points which were not capable of measurement”
  • Late 1600s: Newton calculates relative masses of the Sun and other planets
  • 1838: the first measurement of any stellar distances made. The other stars are far away.
  • 1842: Joseph Smith says the first star is the greatest star
  • 1859: Gustav Kirchhoff and Robert Bunsen discover that stellar lines of absorption pertain to certain chemicals.
  • 1920: Arthur Eddington proposed that stars obtained their energy from nuclear fusion of hydrogen to form helium and raised the possibility that the heavier elements are produced in stars.
  • 1978: Population III stars theorized
  • 2004: Astronomers first measure the mass of a single star other than the Sun
  • 2018: Ethan Siegel writes “Why Were The First Stars Much Larger Than Even Today’s Biggest Ones?” (the article I reference about Population III stars being the most massive)

Sources and Notes

Timeline Sources

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