In response to:

Trees in Themselves from the March 23, 2023 issue

To the Editors:

Astronomy has links to tree-ring studies, and Verlyn Klinkenborg’s eloquent review of Jared Farmer’s book Elderflora: A Modern History of Ancient Trees stimulates me to read it soon [NYR, March 23]. But when I do I hope that I’ll find that Farmer has applied astronomical knowledge more carefully. Klinkenborg states that the atoms in trees are as old as those in humans and that both formed “billions of years ago in the big bang.” This is approximately true for hydrogen, a component of cellulose and the water in our bodies. But the heavier elements, like carbon and oxygen, formed well after the big bang, mostly in first-generation stars and not in planets and life until planets formed around later-generation stars like the Sun. Klinkenborg also states poetically that “we live in a universe full of temporal signals.” Also fine. But suggesting that we can look at the “faint red blur of a galaxy 13.1 billion years old” is misleading because we are seeing that galaxy as it was 13.1 billion years ago. We can only guess at what it looks like today.

David H. DeVorkin
Senior Curator Emeritus
National Air and Space Museum
Washington, D.C.