As a child growing up in the southwest I spent many a summer night camping out in the back yard; laying on my back stargazing in awe and wonderment. I guess you could say I was just trying to get a sense of the room. The whole idea of endless space in this thing we call an unlimited universe had my rapt attention, and I absorbed every book on the subject I could find, becoming a fan of the science-fiction genre in the process. Naturally I followed our fledgling space program and the creation of NASA the National Aeronautical & Space Administration with a passionate excitement; knowing historic events were unfolding right before my eyes. I remember the feeling staring up into those summer night skies; of how small & insignificant we must be in the grand scheme of things. I think even more than the idea of mankind reaching for the stars, what enthralled me the most was the basic question of how life formed on this planet, and did it also form on other planets in this endless ocean of stars?
I think a great majority of us probably take being alive for granted without ever really spending much time wondering how life came to exist. For certain we spend some time wondering who am I, and what is the meaning of life, but mostly we tend to classify those questions as unknowable and file them away in long term storage. We shall leave those questions where they are, as today I am thinking more about how life began here on Earth; and the critical path of events required for a single species to evolve sufficiently to dominate and possibly destroy the entire planet.
This critical path I refer to is what some historians call a sequence of Threshold Moments; which have been instrumental in the evolution of humanity upon this planet. These are the moments and events which occurred at a critical juncture of time to facilitate and shape the way of things to come. Historians have identified a total of eight of these threshold moments in time, and they deserve some attention if only in appreciation of the fact that if these eight events had happened differently our story might be very different, or not have happened at all. To qualify as a threshold moment; an event must alter things on a fundamental level, changing the world irreversibly for better or worse. These eight threshold moments are unique events in time, when the universe seems to defy its own natural law, and move from the simple to the complex, from chaos to order.
#1 - The Big Bang
The first threshold moment is of course the big bang, some 13.8 billion years ago which created the universe as we currently understand it. If this event had not happened in just the way it did, the universe might have blinked out of existence just after being created; the balances had to be just so. In a mere fraction of a second all the energy that will ever exist was created out of the void in an inexplicable flash. All of the fundamental forces such as gravity, and electromagnetism were created in the first few seconds following the big bang. If gravity had been just a tiny bit stronger, everything would have collapsed in on itself, and if it had been much weaker, stars would not be able to form. Instead, the big bang happened with just the perfect amount of force, to set the next sequence of events into motion.
#2 - Stars light up
It took about 380,000 years for the universe to cool enough for matter to form. During this time there was gravity, and electromagnetism, but no atoms. Hydrogen & Helium are the first two atoms to appear, the basic building blocks. Because gravity is not a constant in the brand new universe, some areas having denser gravity attracted these early atoms of helium and hydrogen into structures of swirling gaseous clouds; upon which gravity kept exerting its force, compressing the atoms of hydrogen and helium tighter and tighter together. This in turn increases the temperature of these gas clouds and they become hotter & hotter until at about 10 million degrees Celsius, when the pressure of gravity is just right, and the number of atoms are just so...they ignite; and a star is born! This first generation of stars light up the new universe ensuring that things will never be the same again. In the course of the stars life, eventually its fuel runs low and it begins to burn out. The death of these first generation stars brings us to the next profound threshold moment in time.
#3 - Complex Elements Created
In the cores of dying stars, simple elements are bound and fused together forming more complex elements. Hydrogen and helium are now creating other the other elements on the periodic table. In this way, dying stars become essentially, an element factory. 12 billion years ago stars begin making the elements which eventually will make modern life possible. Unfortunately these dying first generation stars lack the energy to create anything heavier than iron, as when it first creates iron, the process ends with the star exploding as a supernova! Only the intense heat and pressure of a supernova can create the more complex elements. But, not even a supernova can create the heaviest of elements, such as gold. For that, you need the remnants of two supernovas (known as neutron stars) to collide. The resulting explosion of two neutron stars creates all the heavier elements, and sends them scattering through interstellar space. Every time this process repeats, more elements are created. Eons of time are required for this process to produce enough iron, nickel & calcium to form rocky planets like earth.
#4 - Formation of Earth
It is only after the first few generations of stars that life, and earth like planets can exist. It takes a minimum of two star generations before all the necessary elements can exist, and even then you still need a lot more luck to get a life bearing rocky planet. Some of the atoms in your body are more than 13 billion years old, and were a part of creation itself! Several billion years ago a supernova in the Virgo supercluster sent its shockwave smashing into a cloud of cosmic dust and gasses, causing it to compress, spin and heat up. Gravity crushes and sculpts this cloud, and from the remnants of an ancient star, a new one, our sun, bursts into light, revealing eight young planets forming around it. The young earth caught several very lucky breaks. Firstly Earth resides in the only habitable zone in the solar system. Earth orbits in the Goldilocks Zone where its not too hot, not too cold - just right for life! Next, an ancient collision with a Mars size object gave earth its moon, which is a necessary counterbalance to the earth. Were it not for this stabilizing effect, it's doubtful we would have seasons; or even life on earth. Next; earth has a molten core which with its rotation, creates the electromagnetic field surrounding the planet. During The late heavy bombardment, earth received not only a nice mantle containing silver, copper and other minerals, but life giving water, as well; all delivered by asteroid and meteorite impacts. Yet another favorable aspect is the existence of Jupiter and Saturn in our solar system. These two gas giants with their extreme gravity wells, serve to attract and consume the vast majority of roaming space rocks...before they encroach into our orbit! If any one of these factors had happened differently, or not at all; we might not even be here. But they did happen in just the right way and time, which was what was needed for the next threshold moment in time.
#5 - Life begins on Earth
Life on earth began with chemical reactions at the oceans deepest depths; where rising heat from the planets molten core rips the ocean floor open releasing lava and superheated gas, which ignites evolution itself. In the frothy soup of these underwater volcanoes, a new kind of chemistry is born. Just four chemicals, joining in millions of sequences, gives way to the blueprint for all life -
DNA. 540 million years ago, three billion years
after life first appears; earth's oceans exploded with complex animal and plant
life. About 500 million years ago plants
migrated from the ocean to dry land, in time covering the planet in lush jungles. Inevitably some creatures also crawl onto
land in search of food or to escape becoming food; and as they acclimate to
being permanent land dwellers, they will
evolve into ever more complex life forms.
Unfortunately, the more complex a life form is, the more fragile it
becomes to drastic environmental changes.
Five times that we know of all complex life forms on earth have been
destroyed in various extinction events which decimated 50% or more of all life
on the planet. Some 65 million years ago
the asteroid that ended the dinosaurs was one such event. That event cleaned the slate, giving us
mammals a shot at the game of evolution, and as we bask in the glory of what
we've become, let's also remember that if that asteroid had come along just
five minutes sooner or five minutes later; earth would likely still be
dominated by dinosaurs!
#6 - Collective Learning
There are several distinctions that set humans apart from other life forms, and one of them is that we're the only species which accumulates information and passes it on to subsequent generations. Since modern humans arrived on the scene some 60,000 years ago this ability to store and share knowledge has facilitated the evolution of the species to its current point. Collective learning has given humans the skills & tools needed to adapt to changing environments, to survive in the harshest of climates and to make everyday life easier in general. This leads to exponential growth of tribes and villages as well as the spreading of humanity across the face of earth. This unprecedented population expansion did a lot to ensure the survival of the species, but eventually led the way to the next threshold moment, as there was less and less food to feed all those hungry humans.
#7 - Farming Revolution
The pinnacle of collective learning came about 10,000 years ago during the shift from being nomadic hunters to growing our own food. We interfered with creation itself by combining native grasses into the foods we depend on; like rice, barley corn and wheat.
We did much the same with the wild animals of the day: All of the beef consumed each year comes from cows who are all related to 80 wild oxen tamed by our ancestors 10,000 years ago. By capturing, taming and breeding; we turned the wild pheasant into the chicken, wild boars into pigs, and the wolf into the dog. Another wild animal we domesticated, the horse, is also responsible for the widespread use of the ancient Proto-Indo-European language which in time turned into hundreds of different languages, spoken by more than half the worlds population.
Perhaps the biggest challenge to agriculture was learning how to preserve foods and meats; and preservation techniques turned lifestyle changes into a revolution. Being able to build up a stockpile of food freed up more time for other pursuits, including commerce with other settlements and agricultural communities. This in turn lead the way to villages which became towns, which became cities; and as history so clearly shows us, where you have numbers of large cities you eventually have an empire.
#8 - The Modern Revolution
Mankind is breaking the ocean barrier around the year 1500 which was probably the original internet as the expansion into the
intensified the aspect of collective learning.
This period is sometimes called the great acceleration, because with
ocean commerce came new ideas, new ways of doing things, and whole new ways of
thinking. Mankind's ingenuity for making
and building things exploded in the new world as collective learning spread thorough
the Americas. In the era of the steam engine it took one
hundred fifty years for mankind's collective knowledge to double, today it
takes two years, by 2020 it will take 72 hours!
The great acceleration brought about all the modern concepts we take for granted these days which became the matrix for everything that followed: from industry, to farming, to science & technology. Discovery and exploitation of oil and its by-products became the framework for an ever-expanding economic paradigm, and a hell-bent-for-progress mentality; which eventually became the military-industrial complex as we know it today. Growth for the sake of growth, and higher profits is a mindset which has infected humanity to the point that not only are we the dominant form of life on the planet, we also affect and destroy many other species without so much as a thought.
As we move ever deeper into evolutionary times we can be certain that as always, one threshold moment invariably leads to the next in the fullness of time. At this point all I can say is that anyone who doesn't recognize that humanity is soon to see the next threshold, probably hasn't been paying attention these last forty years or so, all the signs point to it like a flaming finger of fate.
The 9th Threshold
As we begin to ponder the possible nature and scope of the 9th threshold, a fundamental question arises: with all our advances in medicine, technology & science, have we invented ourselves out of the cycle of natural selection? Something to think about for sure as we watch the political drama unfolding across our planet. The dinosaurs reigned supreme on earth for 165 million years before a threshold event ended them. We humans have only been around 65 million years or so and despite all our science and technology a similar threshold event could be the ninth. Ironically enough, two of the previous threshold events which led to our living on this planet could conceivably happen again and wipe us out. The aforementioned asteroid impact is one, the other being another supernova explosion in our neighborhood of the galaxy; which would eradicate all life here rather abruptly.
There are of course other contenders for being the 9th threshold, and some would say it must certainly be the effect of off world cultures influencing life here on earth. I always kinda hoped that mankind going to the stars and colonizing space would be the 9th threshold but that is very unlikely what with our entire space program being trashed, so I suppose some other kind of contact with aliens could become the next threshold event. Maybe the 9th threshold will happen when our technology overtakes us and we all become assimilated into the age of transhumanism, cloning and sentient AI (artificial intelligence) aka, "skynet" type robots. High on the list of possible threshold events would be a thermonuclear war. The scenarios are meaningless, because after the first one goes off, everyone will get in the game because this time the name of the game is winner takes all.
We of course already have all the radiation from WWIII thanks to the
debacle; but without all the explosions and destruction of property to disrupt
the flow of business. Yes indeed, Fukushima
could quite easily become the 9th threshold event as it certainly qualifies in
all regards & aspects. Perhaps instead of wiping humanity out; all
this radiation influxing into our genetic structure just as we're entering a
spiritual evolution, will have the effect of mutating our species in ways we
can barely conceive. So, perhaps the
next threshold moment might be the mutant evolution of life on earth, resulting
from our arrogant misuse of powers we barely understand: being taken over by
our own technology!
Our universe is following it's own most basic law, that of entropy. Those cycles of second and third generation stars are becoming fewer, and farther between. Astronomers now say that 90% of material to make new stars is used up, so fewer are being formed. Fewer stars, fewer planets. As the universe continues to expand, at some point billions of years from now, the last stars will twinkle, sputter, then fade out; leaving the universe once again just a void without forms or structure, without creation. Maybe that's why most folks don't spend much time stargazing and pondering the universe, we don't like feeling so small and insignificant. They say that part of this life is the ancient battle between light & dark; and certainly it does seem that way. When you lay out in the back yard looking up at all the stars and galaxies it sure seems that darkness holds more territory, but the most interesting things happen where there is light.
May the Source be with You!
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