Thursday, January 21, 2010

The Universe: one big family

This is the story of the universe, according to science:

1) The Beginning: 14 billion years ago, everything in the universe was contained in a single infinitesimally small point. This point, smaller than an atom, had an infinite density and contained all the matter, space, and time of the universe. The point began to rapidly expand, and as the volume of the universe increased, the heat decreased, and atoms were able to form. The first atoms consisted of mostly hydrogen and helium, since these are the lightest, simplest elements. Through the force of gravity, these atoms began to accrete and accumulate in progressively larger and larger clumps.

2) Creation of Elements: Especially large clumps would be stars, which would get so massive that the matter on the inside of them experienced insanely high pressure from gravity. This pressure produced incredible heat, so much heat that the hydrogen and helium atoms were moving fast enough to overcome their repulsion to one another, and began to crash into each other and fuse. Bigger, heavier atoms began to form. Stars that were very high in mass were able to heat their cores enough to create every element up to iron (fusing iron takes more energy than it gives out), and if one of these stars died in a supernova explosion, the massive heat of the explosion was able to create even heavier elements than iron. The dusty, gassy remains of these dead stars were the building material for new solar systems. Our sun and planets formed through the same gravitational accretion process, and each had on it many elements, including those of life: hydrogen, carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen.

3) Life Stirs: After our planet cooled and formed its huge bodies of water, organic molecules began to form naturally form. There are a few different ideas on how life first began, and none are confirmed, but the following is the most plausible. The first life forms could not have been anything like a cell today; modern cells are far too complex. The first life may have been a single self-replicating molecule, a predecessor to RNA. In the water, there were organic molecules which had one end that was repelled from water and one that was attracted. This led to naturally forming spheres. If self-replicating molecule got caught up in on of these spheres, it would be protected and had a better chance to reproduce. These were the first cells: a self-replicating molecule surrounded by a layer of other molecules.

4) Adaption and Complexity: Single-celled organisms ruled Earth for billions of years. The most dominant form during this time was cyanobacteria, or blue-green algae. These algae are responsible for putting a significant amount of oxygen on the planet, and the presence of oxygen caused a diversification of life. Some cells could now metabolize oxygen, which was more energy-packed. The first multicellular life was colonial, then some cells in the colonies began specializing in one thing. These were the first organs. To talk of our own evolution in detail would be too lengthy, but it had operated on the same naturally selecting powers as the unicellular life before it. The tree of life (for humans) goes as follows:

Bacteria --> Colonial multicellular --> Polyps --> Fish --> Amphibians --> Reptiles --> Mammals --> Tree-dwellers --> Early hominids --> Humans

5) Our Place: According to science so far, life on Earth is literally one big family. All life today are very distantly related cousins; we are all offspring of previous organisms. However, life itself is made of atoms created in the cores of high-mass stars. So the cosmos, while not alive, are by definition our family, because they gave rise to life. Despite any overtones of silly new-age mysticism, the universe is literally all one. We are part of the universe, not merely observers.

- Evan

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