Friday, February 12, 2016

Earth 1.0: Matter of Fact

In the beginning (plus a few billion years)
Before we start forming a vision of the future, we need to consider what has come before us. Specifically, what are the larger events that have delivered the present day.  Knowledge of this legacy will provide perspective into soluions for today's challenges.  To that ends, I will summarize in three articles the salient details of the entirety of the past.

A long time ago (13.8 billion years to be fairly precise) the universe as we know it began with a rapid expansion that resulted in the congealing of matter  (primarily Hydrogen and Helium with trace amounts of Lithium) from energy.  Suffice it to say the singularity at the center of this "Big Bang" event continues to be studied, but the preponderance of evidence points to this moment as the origin of all matter.

Now, of course, we exist in a world that is much more that those three lightweight elements (insert your favorite Periodic Table joke).  Over the course of billions of years after the Big Bang the very nature of matter drew itself together via gravity into immense clumps of sufficient mass that ignited into the self sustaining nuclear energy plants we call stars.  

Stars generally fuse lighter elements into heavier ones which generates heat and emits light aka starshine.  Give a star enough time and it will go through a variety of stages depending on its size forging the likes of Carbon and Iron at its core.  Importantly, the scores of different elements that make up the compounds on Earth were not formed in this most basic stellar fusion.

To get this panoply of atomic elements you need an exploding star, a supernova to be precise.  When such a star violently explodes much of the star material is exposed to extremely high energy and pressures, resulting in the manufacture of all the elements we know and love on our planet Earth.

Given enough time, those distributed bits of ejected star matter clumped together over billions of years, resulting in a universe full of galactically organized star systems, many that have interesting chunks of matter orbiting around them. Time is if anything patient, and we are talking hear about 9 billion years of time-- that's enough time to watch every complete television series (including Breaking Bad and the Simpsons) more than two million times each...with commercials.

The point being, this rock orbiting around our medium size star, took its good old time getting to its current spot.  Additionally, this extremely basic overview is only a snapshot of all the processes that we now understand which contributed to how Earth aggregated into the oblate spheroid of solid, liquid and gaseous materials upon which we stand today.

From Dust The Earth and All Living Things
Now it's no surprise that primitive human cultures would invent creation myths to explain how the Earth and Universe formed. They had very creative minds and a scarcity of data. Today, with modern scientific methods and sound logic, we know with extreme certainty that this is how the Earth really came into being.  It behooves us to use that understanding to build a Millenium Vision.  

Perhaps the core lesson to walk away with is, as Carl Sagan was fond of saying, that we humans are all stardust.  As such, we need to retire fanciful Genesis implications to the cultural fiction section.

Knowing how the Earth began can give us insight into natural processes, material resource availability, and the interrelated nature of all matter.   It also serves as a preamble to understanding how life arose on this planet.  

Life is the second tale in the saga of Earth's legacy.  We'll navigate the rise of living things on Earth next week.

For more detail on the Big Bang and the formation of Earth, I recommend this 5 minute video (The Beginning of Everything)  and this feature length National Geographic documentary (How the Earth Was Formed)


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