Understanding the Universe
Dr. Tiffany B.
purpose of this essay is to present a brief summary of humanity's best modern
understandings of the physical evolution of the Universe and the evolution of
life on Earth.
the beginning there was nothingness, to the best of our imagination, a Void
without matter, devoid of any medium that could support anything similar to our
anthropocentric concepts of life, intelligence, or the capability to plan, see,
or feel. This ultimate emptiness seems
to somehow have contained within it the potentiality of everything that ever
has been and ever will be.
might think of this as analogous to the biological potentiality in a small
acorn that contains the entire genetic code for what can become a stately old
oak tree. Yet this analogy is very
weak, for we cannot comprehend how the nascent Void contained anything. How could nothingness contain matter, or physical
laws, or life, or an omnipotent Divine Being hanging around with a handy
blueprint for a grand scheme of existence?
energetic precipitation of matter out of this nothingness resulted in a
Universe hurtling outwards as if a Big Bang had occurred from some central
black hole of creation. An infinite
unfolding of space and time and events has been transpiring since then, as an
estimated 14 billion years have passed. The laws of nature appear to be the only things that have never
changed. The nature of energy, light,
gravity, and the qualities and the relationships described by the sciences of
physics and chemistry and mathematics have apparently been in effect since the
beginning of time. Meanwhile, change in
the Universe is continuous. Even
molecules and atoms seem to be in constant motion.
of various disciplines make careful observations to understand the extensive
evidence of the physical evolution of galaxies, solar systems, planets,
mountains, and life on Earth. Our
telescopes allow us to see far back in time, where we witness supernova
explosions and the formation and dissolution of stars. Light travels at 186,000 miles per second,
and it is arriving continually from thousands of billions of stars, each at
great distances from all other stars. Light
takes 8 minutes to arrive from Sun, which is 93 million miles away. It takes 4 years for light to arrive from
Alpha Centauri, the second closest star to Earth. And it takes light almost 14 billion years to arrive from the
farthest galaxies that our telescopes can detect.
implication of these facts? When we
look at the night sky, we see back into the history of the Universe to the way
stars were at the time the light left them. This understanding provides us with a cogent perspective of deep
time, and of relativity. It frames the
context of our existence in this miniscule instant of time in our tiny portion
of space in the far reaches of the Milky Way galaxy.
Big Bang model is a respectable, rational, and coherent description for the
creation and physical evolution of the universe. It is an elegant explanation of the origin of everything we see in
the night sky. It is one of the
greatest achievements of the human intellect and spirit. It is the consequence of the human race's
insatiable curiosity, its fabulous imagination, and much attentive observation
and rigorous analysis and disciplined logic.
physics strives to understand infinity and eternity, order and chaos, creation
and destruction, and the heat-forged transformation of atoms into elements in
the stars. Albert Einstein discovered
the relatively inscrutable fact that matter and energy are equivalent. He posited the famous equation that says
that Energy is equal to Mass times the Speed of Light, squared. Who would have thought!
today understand that all religious explanations of creation are distinctly
simplistic, and factually inaccurate. The
Universe was neither recently created, nor has it existed for all of eternity. Physicists and other scientists have found
extensive evidence concerning the formative mechanisms and the physical
evolution of our solar system and its planets. Ten billion years after the Big Bang, our earth formed from matter
orbiting the Sun. In a very real sense,
all matter and life on earth is composed of stardust, i.e., debris from ancient
stars and supernovas and comets and asteroids. Crater impacts on the moon lend to our imagination an evocative
image of the probable process of matter accumulating into planetary and lunar
apparently began within 500 million years after the Earth's formation. For three billion years, all forms of life
were single-celled organisms. The
insight that every species of life has a similar cellular anatomy is cogent
evidence that all life forms emanated from common ancestors with a similar cellular
is a misconception to think scientists believe we are descended from other species
of life in existence today. More
accurately understood, we share with all species of life the similarity of
having evolved from progenitors further back along the tree of life, as
revealed by genetic similarities and the science of molecular biology. Biological lineages for every species of life
can be correlated to earlier ancestors that have genetic similarities at various
removes back in ancient biological history. For instance, humans may have a common ancestor with chimpanzees
about 7 million years ago, and a common ancestor with rabbits 100 million years
use sunshine to create food, giving off oxygen as a byproduct through the
process of photosynthesis. When plants
had created enough oxygen in the atmosphere on Earth long ago, iron oxides
began to be formed into vast beds of iron ore in rock formations more than 2
billion years old. Much red sandstone
like that in the American Southwest dates from this era, and the preponderance
of iron ore mined in the world was formed in those times, incomprehensibly long
does not take a great leap of faith to see the continuousness of change in
natural processes. Erosion wears away
even the hardest of rock, so that with the passage of sufficient amounts of
time, great changes affect the Earth. The
four seasons follow one another inexorably as planet Earth makes its stately
voyage around the Sun every 365 days, year after year, century after century,
millennium after millennium, and eon after eon.
geophysical evolution of Earth can be seen in thousands and thousand of layers
of sedimentary rock, like those composed of marine limestone that were formed
on the bottom of the Indian Ocean and now comprise the summit of the planet's
tallest peak, Mount Everest in the Himalayas. Physical evolution can be seen in awesome eroded remnants of
mountain ranges, in canyon mesas, in outwash plains, in glacial moraines, in
active volcanoes, in metamorphic rock that has been uplifted and eroded down,
in astonishing batholiths of granite like California's Sierra Nevada that were
formed by hot magma cooled over long ages, and in fossil fuels that contain the
stored energy of sunshine, thanks to ancient photosynthesis by plants.
processes and eons of change are evident everywhere, in every mountain range,
every river, every volcano, every glacier, every sandstorm, every hurricane,
every flood, and every season.
this carefully: the evolution of life, like the physical evolution of the
planet, is not some speculative theory. Evolution is a fact supported by some of the most extensive
evidence of any understanding ever. The
mechanisms of evolution may not be completely comprehensible, just as it is
beyond our ability to fully fathom the eons-long evolution of earth's
continents and oceanic crust, and its endless cycle of rock formation and
erosion processes and mountain uplifting.
But this in no way implies that the grand sweep of evolutionary
biological history is mere speculation!
are so rarely preserved, relative to the number of organisms that die and
decompose, that the fossil record is quite incomplete. This is because it takes very rare circumstances
for bones and other traces of life to be preserved for millions of years. But fossils are just one aspect of the
physical evolution of our planet. To
deny the evolution of life is to also deny the greatest insight of geology --
that the Earth is billions of years old, and that given great amounts of time,
continents move and mountains ranges are uplifted and erode away and climatic
conditions change. Ninety-nine percent
of all species of life ever in existence are extinct, and life survives only if
it is able to adapt to the changes.
is the study of the physical evolution of earth through the examination of the
fossil life preserved in sandstone, limestone, tar pits, amber, and other
mediums. Ancient fossil species
represent life forms that existed in distant ages. They provide us with evidence of the relative age during which the
preserving medium was formed. Even
without modern methods of determining the age of sedimentary rock in which
fossils are found, paleontological studies reveal the physical principle that
older layers lie beneath more recently deposited layers. The older the layers of rock, the more
ancient are the species they contain.
fossil record shows that there was a dramatic increase in varieties of life starting
about 545 million years ago, when life somehow began evolving from
single-celled organisms into more complex multi-cellular species. This was the beginning of what scientists
call the Paleozoic ("old life") Era, which was characterized by the
appearance of primitive fishes, land plants, and amphibians. It includes the Carboniferous Period, from
345 million to 280 million years ago, when extensive oil and coal-bearing rock
formations were created from the fossilized remains of countless plants that
died and were covered up on bottom of shallow seas.
Paleozoic Era ended with the Permian Extinction. The fossil record shows that this mass extinction event was the
largest in all of evolutionary history. Tens of thousands of species of life, including half of all fish
species and invertebrates, 75% of all amphibians, and more than 90% of all
marine animal species became extinct.
next era in the fossil record is called the Mesozoic ("middle life")
Era, which is comprised of the Triassic, the Jurassic, and the Cretaceous
Periods from 245 million to 65 million years ago. Two families of reptiles that survived the Permian Extinction
began to show patterns in the fossil record of unprecedented growth,
culminating in numerous forms of dinosaurs. Primitive mammals and birds also evolved during the Mesozoic Era. The Cretaceous Extinction, which evidence
indicates was caused by a giant meteorite impact 65 million years ago, led to
the extinction of the dinosaurs and thousands of other species of life, and the
beginning of the Cenozoic ("recent life") Era.
first mammals apparently evolved from highly specialized reptiles somewhere
around 200 million years ago. These
primitive mammals developed into the insectivores, and eventually led to the
emergence of true primates by the time of the Cretaceous Extinction. Prosimians and then Anthropoid species
evolved over the subsequent ages. Some fossil primates evolved high degrees of
specialization, only to become extinct, whereas others developed into today's
well-known monkeys, apes, and man.
species evolved around 30 million years ago, including gibbons, great apes, and
early man-like beings. Our oldest
direct ancestor in the fossil record appears to belong to the genus
Ramapithecus from about 14 million years ago. Homo erectus appeared about a million years ago. Neanderthal man, perhaps an early member of
our own species, Homo sapiens, dates
from about 250,000 years ago, and modern man dates from somewhere around
150,000 years ago.
understandings outline the unfathomable stretches of time revealed in our
planet's geological history. The human
race's modern civilizations essentially begin with the transition from nomadic
hunting and gathering to the beginning of settlements about 10,000 years ago. This development was facilitated by the
beginning of primitive cultivation of crops at the dawn of recorded history,
which led to extensive agriculture and the correlated growth of villages and
towns and cities.
Hutton, considered the father of the science of geology, discovered an
"angular unconformity" in rock formations in England in the year
1795. An angular unconformity is a
juxtaposition of rock strata that gives clear evidence of two separate rock
formation episodes, one on top of the other.
These layers lie at different angles to each other, meaning that they
formed at significantly different times in separate eras of geological
history. Angular unconformities provide
cogent evidence of the long process of the physical evolution of planet Earth.
visit to Box Canyon just south of Ouray, Colorado, reveals one of these
formations, where billion-year-old sedimentary rock strata, which have been
compressed into many layers of very durable quartzite and black slate, have
been uplifted until the layers are vertical instead of horizontal. They had to have been subsequently covered
by seas that allowed many more layers of sediment to be laid down, and these
new layers have been transformed into layers of sandstone that lie perpendicular
on top of the layers of older rock. All
of these rock layers have been revealed in Box Canyon by the uplifting and
erosion of the Colorado plateau along a fault in the earth's crust.
Hutton's insight led to the study of fossils in many thousands of different
layers of rock worldwide. Even before
techniques were developed to determine the true age of rock layers, the
successive eras of geological time began to be identified. The science of paleontology studies this
history of geology through the examination of fossils occurring in progressive
stages in ancient rock. A very good
summary of the detailed evolution of our understanding of this illuminating era
of discovery is contained in John McPhee's excellent book, Basin and Range.
good observer will note that erosion is a slow and incremental process, with
such forces as rain and wind and ice acting on resistant rock almost
imperceptibly. Great floods and
glaciers and hurricanes and volcanoes and earthquakes affect the landscape much
more rapidly. These facts make geologic
change better understood as a kind of "punctuated equilibrium." For instance, Los Angeles is moving northward
on the Pacific tectonic plate of the Earth's crust, relative to San Francisco,
which is on the edge of the North American tectonic plate. In 1906, these plates moved almost 20 feet
relative to one another in less than one minute as the Pacific Plate lurched
northward along the San Andreas Fault. The
fault has not ruptured since then as forcefully. But it is only a matter of time before the next Big One.
wonder when the next big earthquake will occur, barely cognizant that there
will be 100,000 Big Ones in the next 15 million years, by which time Los
Angeles will have moved to a latitude north of San Francisco. Slow change accumulates into big differences!
us be realistic with ourselves about this fact: no matter what interpretation we project upon the Universe, it
does not affect its true nature. Whether
we actually believe that the sun rises every morning and orbits all the way
around the earth every 24 hours, it does not change the fact that it is
actually the rotation of the earth that makes it appear that the Sun rises and
moves across the sky. Likewise, if we
think that the earth is flat, it does not change the way the earth actually is.
may comfort us to create gods to explain the way things are, but we turn this
into a serious problem when we deny scientific understandings that are vitally
important to recognize. It would does
not matter what explanations we choose to believe if there were no adverse
consequences of believing one way or another, but in cases where such beliefs
create adversities and dangers to our well-being or even our survival, we must
pay more attention to truth and probability.
ecological understandings tell us that it is potentially calamitous to choose
to deny the way things realistically are, environmentally speaking. We are better off being more observant,
open-minded, intelligent, critical of thought, and proactive when it comes to
activities and behaviors that damage the environment, because we are
intricately dependent upon the environs as a fundamental foundation of our
existence. We must be able to adapt to
reality and objective truth. When we
carry a millstone of stubborn faith in doctrines that are socially and
environmentally harmful, then we oppose rational understanding and intelligent
planning and positive action to improve the world.
holy books suppose that the earth is young, and that it was created for
mankind's dominion. It is extremely
improbable that this is literally true.
Faith in such doctrines is becoming increasingly dangerous. Truer understandings -- ones that correspond
more accurately to the way things actually are -- must be considered and
respected. As mankind's numbers grow,
and our detrimental impacts become more pronounced on the planet's natural
resources, atmosphere, climate, biological diversity, and healthy ecosystems,
we simply must take this into serious account. We must!
is the time to begin the transition from an unsustainable existence to an
ecologically sound one. Let us cease
denying and arguing, and begin the challenging process of cooperating to
improve our species' prospects and those of future generations. Let us boldly commit to leave our descendents
a legacy of sustainable consumption, wise development, fair institutions, sane
economic systems, clear understandings, and protected lands and waterways and natural
other words, let us begin NOW to transform our societies with
intelligent design into better ones!