Carl Sagan's Big History Told as a Fable of Our Origins
Parts I and II of his retelling of our origins.
Folksonomies: wonder big history fairy tale
Big History as a Fable
Carl Sagan tells the story of our Universe's history as a fairy tale.
Once upon a time, about ten or fifteen billion years ago, the universe was without form. There were no galaxies. There were no stars. There were no planets. And there was no life. Darkness was upon the face of the deep. The universe was hydrogen and helium. The explosion of the Big Bang had passed, and the fires of that titanic event – either the creation of the universe or the ashes of a previous incarnation of the universe – were rumbling feebly down the corridors of space.
But the gas of hydrogen and helium was not smoothly distributed. Here and there in the great dark, by accident, somewhat more than the ordinary amount of gas was collected. Such clumps grew imperceptibly at the expense of their surroundings, gravitationally attracting larger and larger amounts of neighboring gas. As such clumps grew in mass, their denser parts, governed by the inexorable laws of gravitation and conservation of angular momentum, contracted and compacted, spinning faster and faster. Within these great rotating balls and pinwheels of gas, smaller fragments of greater density condensed out; these shattered into billions of smaller shrinking gas balls.
Compaction led to violent collisions of the atoms at the centers of the gas balls. The temperatures became so great that electrons were stripped from protons in the constituent hydrogen atoms. Because protons have like positive charges, they ordinarily electrically repel one another. But after a while the temperatures at the centers of the gas balls became so great that the protons collided with extraordinary energy – an energy so great that the barrier of electrical repulsion that surrounds the proton was penetrated. Once penetration occurred, nuclear forces – the forces that hold the nuclei of atoms together – came into play. From the simple hydrogen gas the next atom in complexity, helium, was formed. In the synthesis of one helium atom from four hydrogen atoms there is a small amount of excess energy left over. This energy, trickling out through the gas ball, reached the surface and was radiated into space. The gas ball had turned on. The first star was formed. There was light on the face of the heavens.
The stars evolved over billions of years, slowly turning hydrogen into helium in their deep interiors, converting the slight mass difference into energy, and flooding the skies with light. There were in these times no planets to receive the light, and no life forms to admire the radiance of the heavens.
The conversion of hydrogen into helium could not continue indefinitely. Eventually, in the hot interiors of the stars, where the temperatures were high enough to overcome the forces of electrical repulsion, all the hydrogen was consumed. The fires of the stars were stoked. The pressures in the interiors could no longer support the immense weight of the overlying layers of star. The stars then continued their process of collapse, which had been interrupted by the nuclear fires of a billion years before.
In contracting further, higher temperatures were reached, temperatures so high that helium atoms – the ash of the previous epoch of nuclear reaction – became usable as stellar fuel. More complex nuclear reactions occurred in the insides of the stars – now swollen, distended red giant stars. Helium was converted to carbon, carbon to oxygen and magnesium, oxygen to neon, magnesium to silicon, silicon to sulfur, and upward through the litany of the periodic table of the elements – a massive stellar alchemy. Vast and intricate mazes of nuclear reactions built up some nuclei. Others coalesced to form much more complex nuclei. Still others fragmented or combined with protons to build only slightly more complex nuclei.
But the gravity on the surfaces of red giants is low, because the surfaces have expanded outward from the interiors. The outer layers of red giants are slowly dissipated into interstellar space, enriching the space between the stars in carbon and oxygen and magnesium and iron and all the elements heavier than hydrogen and helium. In some cases, the outer layers of the star were slowly stripped off, like the successive skins of an onion. In other cases, a colossal nuclear explosion rocked the star, propelling at immense velocity into interstellar space most of the outside of the star. Either by leakage or explosion, by dissipation slow or dissipation fast, star-stuff was spewed back to the dark, thin gas from which the stars had come.
But here, later generations of stars were aborning. Again the condensations of gas spun their slow gravitational pirouettes, slowly transmogrifying gas cloud into star. But these new second- and third-generation stars were enriched in heavy elements, the patrimony of their stellar antecedents. Now, as stars were formed, smaller condensations formed near them, condensations far too small to produce nuclear fires and become stars. They were little dense, cold clots of matter, slowly forming out of the rotating cloud, later to be illuminated by the nuclear fires that they themselves could not generate. These unprepossessing clots became the planets: Some giant and gaseous, composed mostly of hydrogen and helium, cold and far from their parent star; others, smaller and warmer, losing the bulk of their hydrogen and helium by a slow trickling away to space, formed a different sort of planet – rocky, metallic, hard-surfaced.
These smaller cosmic debris, congealing and warming, released small quantities of hydrogen-rich gases, trapped in their interiors during the processes of formation. Some gases condensed on the surface, forming the first oceans; other gases remained above the surface, forming the first atmospheres – atmospheres different from the present atmosphere of Earth, atmospheres composed of methane, ammonia, hydrogen sulfide, water, and hydrogen – an unpleasant and unbreathable atmosphere for humans. But this is not yet a story about humans.
Starlight fell on this atmosphere. Storms were driven by the Sun, producing thunder and lightning. Volcanoes erupted, hot lava heating the atmosphere near the surface. These processes broke apart molecules of the primitive atmosphere. But the fragments reassorted into more and more complex molecules, falling into the early oceans, there interacting with each other, falling by chance upon clays, a dizzying process of breakdown, resynthesis, transformation – slowly moving toward molecules of greater and greater complexity, driven by the laws of physics and chemistry. After a time, the oceans achieved the constituency of a warm dilute broth.
Among the innumerable species of complex organic molecules forming and dissipating in this broth there one day arose a molecule able crudely to make copies of itself – a molecule which weakly guided the chemical processes in its vicinity to produce molecules like itself – a template molecule, a blueprint molecule, a self-replicating molecule. This molecule was not very efficient. Its copies were inexact. But soon it gained a significant advantage over the other molecules in the early waters. The molecules that could not copy themselves did not. Those that could, did. The number of copying molecules greatly increased.
As time passed, the copying process became more exact. Other molecules in the waters were reprocessed to form the jigsaw puzzle pieces to fit the copying molecules. A minute and imperceptible statistical advantage of the molecules that could copy themselves was soon transformed by the arithmetic of geometrical progression into the dominant process in the oceans.
More and more elaborate reproductive systems arose. Those systems that copied better produced more copies. Those that copied poorly produced fewer copies. Soon most of the molecules were organized into molecular collectives, into self-replicating systems. It was not that any molecules had the glimmering of an idea or the ghostly passage of a need or want or aspiration; merely, those molecules that copied did, and soon the face of the planet became transformed by the copying process. In time, the seas became full of these molecular collectives, forming, metabolizing, replicating … forming, metabolizing, replicating … forming, metabolizing, mutating, replicating… Elaborate systems arose, molecular collectives exhibiting behavior, moving to where the replication building blocks were more abundant, avoiding molecular collectives that incorporated their neighbors. Natural selection became a molecular sieve, selecting out those combinations of molecules best suited by chance to further replication.
All the while the building blocks, the foodstuffs, the parts for later copies, were being produced, mainly by sunlight and lightning and thunder – all driven by the nearby star. The nuclear processes in the insides of the stars drove the planetary processes, which led to and sustained life.
As the supply of foodstuffs gradually was exhausted, a new kind of molecular collective arose, one able to produce molecular building blocks internally out of air and water and sunlight. The first animals were joined by the first plants. The animals became parasites upon the plants, as they had been earlier on the stellar manna falling from the skies. The plants slowly changed the composition of the atmosphere; hydrogen was lost to space, ammonia transformed to nitrogen, methane to carbon dioxide. For the first time, oxygen was produced in significant quantities in the atmosphere – oxygen, a deadly poisonous gas able to convert all the self-replicating organic molecules back into simple gases like carbon dioxide and water.
But life met this supreme challenge: In some cases by burrowing into environments where oxygen was absent, but – in the most successful variants – by evolving not only to survive the oxygen but to use it in the more efficient metabolism of foodstuffs.
Big History as a Fable Part II
Carl Sagan's account of the history of our Universe continued.
Sex and death evolved – processes that vastly increased the rate of natural selection. Some organisms evolved hard parts, climbed onto, and survived on the land. The pace of production of more complex forms accelerated. Flight evolved. Enormous four-legged beasts thundered across the steaming jungles. Small beasts emerged, born live, instead of in hard-shelled containers filled with replicas of the early oceans. They survived through swiftness and cunning – and increasingly long periods in which their knowledge was not so much preprogrammed in selfreplicating molecules as learned from parents and experiences.
All the while, the climate was variable. Slight variations in the output of sunlight, the orbital motion of the planet, clouds, oceans, and polar icecaps produced climatic changes – wiping out whole groups of organisms and causing the exuberant proliferation of other, once insignificant, groups.
And then … the Earth grew somewhat cold. The forests retreated. Small arboreal animals climbed down from the trees to seek a livelihood on the savannas. They became upright and tool-using. They communicated by producing compressional waves in the air with their eating and breathing organs. They discovered that organic material would, at a high enough temperature, combine with atmospheric oxygen to produce the stable hot plasma called fire. Postpartum learning was greatly accelerated by social interaction. Communal hunting developed, writing was invented, political structures evolved, superstition and science, religion and technology.
And then one day there came to be a creature whose genetic material was in no major way different from the self-replicating molecular collectives of any of the other organisms on his planet, which he called Earth. But he was able to ponder the mystery of his origins, the strange and tortuous path by which he had emerged from star-stuff. He was the matter of the cosmos, contemplating itself. He considered the problematical and enigmatic question of his future. He called himself Man. He was one of the starfolk. And he longed to return to the stars.