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Tie together cosmic origins with human development

October 11, 2009

Timeless questions about the big bang: Will they ever be answered?

By Denise Scammon

Interpreting the Big History – how stars and planets formed following the Big Bang, how life originated on our planet and how our solar system supports that life – gives me a greater appreciation of the complex interactions that occur at all levels and scales of matter and energy. About the big bang creation myth, in “Maps of Time,” David Christian states that “the universe was created at a particular time, that it has a life story of its own, and that it may die in the distant future” (p. 23). The life story of the universe begins with that big bang followed, within seconds, by incredible changes that formed particles, then atoms, followed by stars and galaxies. The stars were composed of heavy elements which became the building blocks of life. Those building blocks evolved, somehow, into life. Linking cosmic origins to human development and exploring what this means in my own life has raised questions in my mind and the realization of my need to better understand the available scientific research. What I have found is that researchers are still trying to uncover how the building blocks of life evolved into actual life forms. Paul Patton writes in “One World, Many Minds,” that science theories are popular for a while and then become questionable when refuted by a new scientific discovery. Even when there is no replacement theory, the original theory is no longer popular. Out of all the questions that could be asked about life, I think the most important question still remains unanswered, “What caused life to appear on Earth?”

Following the big bang, the intense heat of the universe kept particles from forming into atoms. Christian states, “At this temperature, matter and energy are interchangeable” (p. 24). The universe expanded and as it did, it cooled enough so that particles could form into atoms; the first two elements were hydrogen and helium. I wonder if the universe will continue to expand and cool forever. Won’t the universe come to a point where it can no longer expand? Will it then contract? Conditions in the universe are not the same now as when the galaxies first formed – we don’t have that same level of heat and energy that followed the big bang. But, stars are still being formed in galaxies. Gas clouds swirling around in the galaxies clump together due to gravitational pull and become stars. The importance of understanding star formation comes from the fact that the components of stars are the building blocks of life, and thus the popular statement “We are all made of star dust.” I think teaching Big History to people with a casual interest in it is best done with anecdotal examples of scientific research. It has become obvious the further into the course I go that Big History is an interdisciplinary course that integrates knowledge from many sciences. One person can’t be expected to have deep knowledge in a multitude of sciences. I expect to rely on scientists who specialize in a specific area of science for my information. Partaking in an interdisciplinary course such as Big History offers me a lot of scientific information all rolled up in one course, an extremely important feature in a busy world.

How do physicists explain time and space? After reading the book “Einstein’s Dreams” by Alan Lightman, a novel about theories of time and space, I came away with a better understanding of the possible theories of time and space and a reminder of the importance of critical thinking skills. Imagine 30 different possibilities that explain abstract ideas such as time and space. The scale of the universe is so great that it is almost unfathomable. I particularly liked compressing the actual time that has passed since the big bang into a 24-hour day because it places the large scale view into perspective. Christian used this method and so did the NOVA film “Origins: Earth is born.” The 4.5 billion year history of Earth is described as if it occurred over 24 hours – Earth was born at midnight.

Our sun is a medium-size star, meaning it will “burn [its] fuel more slowly than the giants” (Christian p. 49). It’s been giving off energy for almost five billion years and it is expected to continue to do so for another five billion years. The sun is our source of heat and light on Earth. When the sun nears its death, it will flare, possibly engulfing the planets closest to it, including Earth. Our solar system is in the Milky Way, a galaxy of more than 100 billion stars held together by gravity. There are billions of other galaxies beyond the Milky Way. The Hubble Space Telescope Web site states that plans are in the works to create a “census of the population of Kuiper Belt objects at the fringe of our solar system, hopefully witness the birth of planets around other stars and investigate the composition and atmospheres of other worlds.” Further away from Earth, the Hubble will take a “portrait of the universe in near-infrared light and probe the behavior of dark energy.” That sounds fascinating. Dark energy is the force that is causing the universe to expand. It is like anti-gravity.

It is also interesting to know that light from stars in our own galaxy and other galaxies travel at a specific rate of speed. In “Follow the Energy,” Eric Chaisson states that “it’s precisely because light speed is finite that we can discover a fascinating record of many past events, including perhaps knowledge of our own cosmic origins.” Knowing this rate has helped scientists track galaxy movement away from Earth: “not only are the galaxies receding, but they recede at velocities proportional to their distances…. The greater the distance of an object from us, the faster it recedes” (Chaisson).  It is also interesting to note that by the time the star light reaches Earth, “we are seeing objects that existed early in the universe’s life” (Christian p. 47). We are looking back in time. We are looking at the past.

How did the planets form and why did life appear on Earth? “Chemical processes may have generated life elsewhere in the universe, though at present we do not know if this is true” (Christian p. 80). Planets formed from chunks of gas and dust which collided and stuck together forming larger masses. Depending on the distance from the sun, the planets were either rocky or gaseous. Conditions in the early universe have erased the evidence of Earth’s birth – erosion, volcanoes, collisions with meteorites. Earth was lifeless, had a poisonous atmosphere, and without an ozone layer, the Sun’s radiation was intense. Eventually, Earth was positioned in the solar system that made it amenable for life to appear. Christian states that “Earth’s temperatures were suitable for the appearance of the complex and fragile molecules that made up the earliest life forms” (p. 63). Simple chemicals became complex; the building blocks of life combined in complex ways to form life. One-cell organisms appeared 3.5 billion years ago and became more complex two billion years ago. Single cell organisms combined into multi-cell organisms one billion years ago. Complex organisms continued to evolve, but only those organisms that could adapt to the changing environment  survived the changes. Sid Perkins wrote in “The Iron Record of Earth’s Oxygen” about the study of banded iron formations on Earth which is an important study because iron has been linked to oxygen formation on our planet. When photosynthetic organisms first appeared on our planet – a blue-green algae – the oxygen they produced was absorbed in rock – bands of iron in Earth’s rock. The oxygen continued to be absorbed by the rock until the rock became saturated, at which point the oxygen released during photosynthesis stayed in Earth’s atmosphere. This change in the atmosphere led to the evolution of life forms on Earth. Through fossils, scientists can follow how life on Earth spread and how it diversified. Humans appeared in the last few million years, modern man in the last 150,000 years.

While people adhere to a religious belief that God created the universe 6,000 years ago, science provides evidence that it took eons for some geological formations to occur on Earth – much longer than 6,000 years. The theory of plate tectonics gave a boost to the modern creation story. Maps on the Paleomap Project site show configurations of ancient continents and seas, an excellent tool to study where life forms evolved and what role atmosphere and climate played in evolution and how these patterns will continue in the future. The film,  Origins: How Life Began, NOVA, explains that the living organisms that we see today take up a very small segment of time in the timeline of life. Bacteria, on the other hand, have been here since the beginning of living organisms on our planet. That brings the study of how life first appeared on Earth down to the microcosmic level. In “Maps of Time,” Appendix 2, Chaos and order, the importance of patterns is stressed. The first law of thermodynamics is the law of the conservation of energy. The second law of thermodynamics states that in a closed system the amount of free energy or energy capable of doing work tends to dissipate over time (Christian p. 507). Patterns help us predict possible scenarios which allows us to plan for the future. What can be changed and what is unchangeable?

“Human history marks the sudden and unexpected emergence of a new level of complexity,” explains Christian (p. 139). What differentiates humans from other organisms? What is the new level of complexity? I understand the answer to be a combination of several factors. First, humans have the ability to harvest energy: “humans seem to constantly develop new ecological tricks, new ways of extracting resources from their environments” (Christian p. 145). Second, the human brain increased in size, evidence of which is seen in fossils. Third, humans adapted to changing environments and went from nomadic living to farming lifestyles. Fourth, and I think most importantly, humans have the capacity for language and collective learning, unlike animals: “animals without symbolic language may lack the ability humans have to deliberately think about the past and imagine the future” (Christian p. 146). I found this incredibly interesting and think this information may be useful to me in the future. How can I share this knowledge with others?

Regarding whether plants can think in the same manner as humans, Susan Milius writes in “No Brainer Behavior,” that “Plants behave and misbehave as dramatically as animals” (p. 16).  The way that humans acquire knowledge is unique, some knowledge is intentionally pursued and some knowledge is a by-product of linking new information to knowledge that is already understood. Small bits of information join together and form the larger picture, a deeper understanding. I loved reading about the power of collective learning: “processes of collective learning ensure that humans as a species will get better at extracting resources from the environment, and their increasing ecological skills ensure … human populations will increase” (Christian p. 147).

How did humans acquire the language skills that make them unique among other living organisms? Could the evolution of hearing-related genes have played a part in language development? This is important to know because evolutionary changes have occurred to the eight hearing-related genes over the last 40,000 years, some as recent as 2,000 years ago.  Bruce Bower, in his essay “Evolution’s Ear,” states that science now “challenges the idea that language and speech developed rapidly 50,000 years ago due to a single genetic mutation” (p. 23). Fossil evidence shows that Neanderthals and Stone Age humans spoke, but their speech would not have been as clear as modern humans, and it would have been slow.  Jumping from human language to intelligence, can physics explain whether or not everything that has occurred in the universe since the big bang is the result of intentional design? “Today’s physics has nothing to say about the intentionality that has resulted in the existence of such objects, even though this intentionality is clearly causally effective” (Ellis p. 743). This eternal question is closely followed by “How fragile is life on Earth?”

In “Protect biodiversity hot spots and the rest will follow,” Edward Wilson writes that focusing on saving our physical world will not save the living organisms, but if we first focus on saving living organisms, the physical world gets saved at the same time. I think that highlights how fragile life is on Earth. He further states that “the natural environment where most of the biodiversity hangs on cannot survive the press of land-hungry people who have nowhere else to go.…” (ScienceNews). There are enough resources to go around, but we need a better distribution system. By learning how the universe was created, and how life appeared and how it survives, I am becoming more aware of the effects of everything I do to the environment. After reading Wilson’s article, I am now aware that saving the living and saving the environment are simultaneous activities.

How many people have listened to the sounds made by Earth? The sounds of Earth recorded simultaneously all over the world with seismographs in John Bullitt’s “Hearing Earth: Rumblings of a Complex Planet” on NPR’s site was very cool – the natural background noise of Earth, made up of the sound of waves and swells crashing on the Earth’s crust. I also enjoyed listening to the “Rumblings of Underwater Giants,” but especially liked Mr. O’Connor’s theory that whales find their way from Alaska to Hawaii by listening for the underwater volcano rumblings. Nature offers us underwater rumblings that are like a GPS system, and similarly, nature offers us cosmic radiation that can be used for imaging purposes. In Betsy Mason’s “Muons Meet the Maya,” she writes that “high-energy particles known as muons, which are born of cosmic radiation” are being used as an imaging technique to study pyramids, volcanic activity and detect nuclear materials (p. 361). I feel fortunate to have listened to cool recordings of Earth noises and then to have read Mason’s article. She writes that combining physics with archaeology (interdisciplinary) by using muons for imaging will possibly prevent destruction of the pyramids while studying them. Equally important is the use of muons as an imaging technique that could safeguard against nuclear devices and that could forecast volcanic eruptions. What do I take with me from these recordings and this article? I have so much to learn about what’s going on around me, on all levels. I thought the recordings were cool, but they were so much more.

Science has provided evidence to support how planets and stars were formed. But, I have come to the conclusion that there are many unanswerable questions about our cosmic origins. Will the universe continue to expand and cool or will the anti-gravity forces weaken causing the universe to contract like an elastic that has been stretched and then reverts to its original form? Can we explain abstract ideas like time and space with scientific evidence? Why did life appear on Earth? I think we haven’t been able to answer certain questions because we either don’t have the right tools yet or we have the tools, but haven’t used them in a way that would reveal the answer. “We do not know what laws are involved in creating life” (Christian p. 511). What have cosmic patterns revealed about our future? It will be interesting to continue learning from future Big History assignments how our cosmic origins tie into human development. As humans continue to evolve, genetically and intellectually, it would benefit mankind if everyone participated in saving the living, while saving planet Earth.

References
Chaisson, E. (2005). Follow the Energy: Relevance of Cosmic Evolution for Human History [Electronic version]. Historically Speaking 6 (5).
Christian, D. (2004). Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Ellis, G. (2005). Physics, Complexity and Causality [Electronic version]. Nature, 435. 743.
Harper, A. (Director). (2004). Origins: Earth is Born [Television broadcast]. NOVA: PBS.
Harper, A. (Director). (2004). Origins: How Life Began [Television broadcast]. NOVA: PBS.
Lightman, A. (1993). Einstein’s Dreams. New York: Random House.
Mason, B. (2007). Muons Meet the Maya [Electronic version]. Science News, 172 (23). 360–361.
Milius, S. (2009). No Brainer Behavior [Electronic version]. Science News, 175 (13). 16–19.
National Aeronautics and Space Administration. (2009). Hubble Space Telescope. Retrieved October 5, 2009 from http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/hubble/main/index.html.
PALEOMAP Project. (2002). Retrieved September 17, 2009 from http://www.scotese.com/climate.htm.
Patton, P. (2008). One World, Many Minds [Electronic version]. Scientific American, Mind, 19 (6). 72–79 (e-reserve).
Perkins, S. (2009). The Iron Record of Earth’s Oxygen [Electronic version]. Science News, 175 (13). 24–28.
Wilson, E. (2008). Protect biodiversity hot spots and the rest will follow [Electronic version]. Science News. 32.

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