Stellar nucleosynthesis is the collective term for the nuclear reactions taking place in stars to build the nuclei of the elements heavier than hydrogen. Some small quantity of these reactions also occur on the stellar surface under various circumstances. For the creation of elements during the explosion of a star, the term supernova nucleosynthesis is used.
The processes involved began to be understood early in the 20th century, when it was first realized that the energy released from nuclear reactions accounted for the longevity of the Sun as a source of heat and light. The prime energy producer in the sun is the fusion of hydrogen to helium, which occurs at a minimum temperature of 3 million kelvin.
In 1920, Arthur Eddington, on the basis of the precise measurements of atoms by F.W. Aston, was the first to suggest that stars obtained their energy from nuclear fusion of hydrogen to form helium. In 1928, George Gamow derived what is now called the Gamow factor, a quantum-mechanical formula that gave the probability of bringing two nuclei sufficiently close for the strong nuclear force to overcome the Coulomb barrier. The Gamow factor was used in the decade that followed by Atkinson and Houtermans and later by Gamow himself and Edward Teller to derive the rate at which nuclear reactions would proceed at the high temperatures believed to exist in stellar interiors.
In 1939, in a paper entitled "Energy Production in Stars", Hans Bethe analyzed the different possibilities for reactions by which hydrogen is fused into helium. He selected two processes that he believed to be the sources of energy in stars. The first one, the proton-proton chain, is the dominant energy source in stars with masses up to about the mass of the Sun. The second process, the carbon-nitrogen-oxygen cycle, which was also considered by Carl Friedrich von Weizsäcker in 1938, is most important in more massive stars. These works concerned the energy generation capable of keeping stars hot. They did not address the creation of heavier nuclei, however. That theory was begun by Fred Hoyle in 1946 with his argument that a collection of very hot nuclei would assemble into iron. Hoyle followed that in 1954 with a large paper outlining how advanced fusion stages within stars would synthesize elements between carbon and iron in mass.
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