The Seed of the Universe, and What Followed

Milky Way in Antarctica

I wanted to do something special for my hundredth article, and then I had this idea and thought it qualified. Here’s to celebrating a hundred articles of skepticism, and hoping for a hundred more!

The universe seed, unbelievably tiny compared to what it will become, is made of an extremely dense homogeneous material. When the seed abruptly expands in the first few nanoseconds, its material clumps together into particles like minuscule bubbles. The particles react with each other, and as the newborn universe becomes much less dense, the temperature drops and reactions change. The particles tend to stick together, sometimes merging to form larger composite particles, sometimes destroying each other. As this process continues, it results in something that will eventually be the nucleus of a simple atom that an intelligent clump of particles called Antoine Lavoisier will name hydrogen.

At this point, the baby universe is about one millisecond old. It continues to grow.

Several new types of particles arise from specific arrangements of smaller components. One of these is the neutron, which can stick to protons and form a clump. Another is the electron. After several hundred thousand years, conditions are right for electrons to start sticking to protons and clumps of protons and neutrons. These are the first stable atoms, hydrogen and helium. A few other elements form with different numbers of protons, neutrons, and electrons.

The inconsistent expansion results in denser blobs of particles that contract due to the phenomenon of gravity, leaving mostly empty space between them. The blobs themselves aren’t uniform either, so smaller blobs within them become even denser.

Millions of years have passed now, and a region of hot, dense gas becomes a much hotter and much more dense object. The atoms are smashed together by gravity and come apart as the pressure and temperature rise. They form a star, a clump of particles so large that it can’t really be called a bigger particle. It’s a huge messy collection of particles, all interacting in strange and wonderful ways.

Innumerable stars form in clusters and fill the universe with light, turning the former blobs into beautiful galaxies that will someday be peered at through clever contraptions by curious clumps of particles on a cold pebble called a planet. But before the pebble shows up, some stars have to die.

Stars vary widely in size, and each type is bound for a different fate. Small ones last extremely long, and larger ones may go through several stages as they burn up. Some end up extremely dense and cold. The biggest become unstable and explode, producing a brief new environment where heavy atoms are formed. The debris is flung in all directions through space, leaving behind a thin cloud of expanding gas, a ghost that glows faintly in the light of living stars.

The debris scatters through the galaxy, eventually joining other clouds of gas and starting to clump together. In some of these clouds, a star forms and the rest of the material falls toward it. Some of these cold chunks of rock and metal move at just the right angle and speed to fall forever, held in a stable orbit by the gravity of the star.

Let’s follow an interesting clump of heavy atoms which now orbits a rather average white star. It heats up as it collects more material, but the surface quickly cools and becomes mostly solid. The gravity of this baby planet is strong enough to keep a blanket of gases around it, which helps keep it warm and is important for what comes next.

One of the special atoms in this new world is oxygen, which can combine with hydrogen to form a molecule called water. Another is carbon, which can bond to many elements in many different ways. With so many atoms in the world that the number of them would be fifty-one digits long, there are countless reactions happening all the time. It becomes perhaps inevitable that conditions in at least one area eventually allow for the formation of rare and complex molecules that follow a pattern. Unlike the other chemicals formed so far, these patterned ones react in a unique new way. Given the right conditions, they cause other atoms to assemble into a copy of themselves.

After this first spark the odds are beaten, and the self-replicating molecules colonize the planet. Some of them are slightly different and cause other types of molecules to form a shell around them, which provides protection and allows them to last longer, thus producing more copies that also have shells. Before long, self-replicating molecules with shells have colonized the planet. The number of them is uncountable, and as they continue to make copies some aren’t quite the same. Occasionally the difference makes the molecules able to last even longer and create more copies.

Change after tiny change piles up, until the most successful combination of molecules is a giant one with multiple distinct features…a cell. Uncountable cells teem all over the earth making imperfect copies of themselves. One change allows them to form a colony, which is able to survive longer than individual cells. Two main types of cell colonies take diverging paths: animals consume the organic matter around them to gain material and energy, and plants use sunlight and inorganic matter to manufacture what they need.

The various features of an animal allow it to interact with the world in new ways. A few cells might be specialized to sense light, while others contract and relax to produce movement. Still others gather the materials needed to replace damaged members and create copies of the organism. Eventually some organisms have grown so large that a cluster of cells is devoted to controlling the rest, since quick communication between extreme ends of the colony is important for survival. This communication runs extremely fast between cells by the transfer of electrons, a phenomenon called electricity. The foundation has been laid for brains.

Different animals survive better in different environments; some venture out of the water and find a whole new world to populate. Among the resulting diversity is a small furry one, probably nocturnal and hunted by many predators. The more intelligent individuals are able to survive better, so over time they develop brains with more and more cells. When the climate turns cold and kills off most of the larger animals, the furry ones inherit the earth.

Due to constant competition for resources, the stronger and smarter mammals tend to reproduce the most, and through many splintering branches of the family tree some of their descendants become intelligent enough to compensate for their relative mediocrity in size and strength. Like many other animals from ants to penguins, the intelligent apes are social, working together in a colony to make their survival more likely. Thanks to their ancestral history with digging, climbing, and other activities, they have limbs well-suited to experimenting with tools.

The growth of intelligence continues and various populations branch out into new species. Some walk on their hind legs, which frees their hands for using weapons, and they become the apex predator. Humans have been born. They spread throughout the earth and start asking questions: Where did we come from? What is this place? How does everything work? None of their ancestors have been able to ask these questions, let alone collect knowledge to pass down through the generations.

So the humans invent sounds to represent and communicate complex ideas. Some ideas are more popular and they last a long time, being revised and embellished through each generation and passed along via oral tradition. Mythologies spring up, and the invention of written words offers a more reliable way to relay ideas.

One group of humans makes their way east, farther and farther, until they end up on a continent that drifts away from the others. The two halves of the world spend thousands of years mostly isolated from each other, until Europeans learn about the other continents and name them the Americas. They colonize the shores, bringing with them viruses and bacteria that the natives haven’t yet encountered. Diseases spread quickly, killing tens of millions.

In the early 1700’s AD, in eastern North America, a Cherokee woman has a daughter with a European man. After adding more European DNA through eight subsequent generations, their lineage traces to the sentient collection of atoms forged by dying stars called…me.

Image: Shutterstock

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