A wakeup call



Aidan Reed, '20

In the beginning, the entire universe was contained within a single, atom-sized dot. An ultra small spec of heat and fog that was the only thing in existence. To imagine looking at this dot is actually paradoxical because there was nothing outside of it. Thirteen point seven billion years ago, for reasons scientists have yet to understand, that point of light exploded into the universe. According to Stephen Hawking, our small dot of a universe was roughly the size of an orange in less than a trillionth of a second. It continued to unfurl and unwrap itself like a complex sheet of origami, taking close to a hundred seconds to become the size of our solar system. This primordial universe consisted of two kinds of subatomic particles. Half were regular matter, what you and I and everything we know is made of. Half were antimatter, the opposite of matter. The entire universe was plunged into a violent, chaotic, and yin yang state; when matter and antimatter meet, they destroy each other in a flash of energy. Here lies the very first cosmic improbability that we exist. There happened to be just a fraction more matter than antimatter. One in a billion particles survived this early stage, which is lucky for us because that one in a billion eventually made everything: stars, planets, black holes, and eventually the Earth.

Don’t get too excited though, this early universe was a pretty bleak place. The matter that was left was simply hydrogen gas, spread out in a vast, thin bubble through space. It was a bit like that shabby, deteriorated blanket that no one wants to end up with on family movie night. Every single particle of gas seemed to be perfectly placed; every atom was exactly the same distance from any other atom. This prevents the principle force of gravity from doing its job, because it pulls the same on every side of every particle. This means that for a very long time, absolutely nothing happened. However, one of the principle rules of the universe is that nothing is perfect. A few of these particles had to have been slightly off, slightly askew from the perfect, locking grid of desolation. Here we have yet another astronomical improbability. An imperfection indescribably small. This allowed gravity to sink its fangs deep, because it can now pull harder on some sides of different particles, slowly assembling vast into denser and denser regions. These became where every star was crafted.

Eventually, hydrogen in the early universe was pulled so tightly together that something astonishing happened. It formed a star, actually countless billions of stars. For ease, I will center on one. The gut of our hydrogen star will ultimately reach a critical ten million degrees, at which point nuclear fusion is approaching. The hydrogen then melds together, forming helium. Since helium is slightly heavier than oxygen, it drops to the center of our star, and the process begins again. It turns out, stars are gigantic forges capable of building many different elements. This is lucky for us, because you can’t craft a planet like earth from hydrogen alone. You need elements like oxygen, carbon, and iron to construct whimsical peaks, clouds, and an atmosphere. Not only did stars contribute to the physical attributes of the Earth, every organism on it was built in the heart of one. The carbon in your bones and blood was formed billions of years ago when helium began to fuse. Now, our star is becoming intensely layered, with the heaviest elements more toward the center. Here’s where the nice neat system changes. Iron is next up to fuse, but it doesn’t produce energy when it does, so the whole system begins to cool down. Massive amounts of iron build up in the center of our star until a critical mass is reached. The star is close to death. The sheer mass of the iron tips the scale, and gravity has a field day. The star first collapses in on itself, and then explodes, sending all of its cosmic building blocks flying into space. The intensity of the explosion is enough to fuse its iron, creating heavier elements like gold, platinum, and silver. Therefore, you and your earrings both originate from a giant ball of gas and metal.

Our very own earth was created by the debris from the aftermath of a star death, roughly five billion years ago. Located a perfect distance away from a yellow star just big enough to burn steadily for billions of years, our rocky little planet waited. It was waiting for a process called abiogenesis, which is the combination of a few random organic molecules to create the very first cell. The most accurate modern theories on abiogenesis say that trying to estimate its probability is impossible because there are so many factors to deal with. I like this concept, because it reveals how incredibly unlikely this process is. Life should not exist. Yet here we are, and the vast amount of lucky breaks we caught to get here is breathtaking. The elements and materials required for abiogenesis are strewn all over our solar system, but they only exist because of older stars that have since burnt out. Those stars only came to be because of an imperfection in the ancient, vast gas clouds of the early universe, and that gas existed because of a one in a million imbalance of subatomic particles.

This is why I hold modern earth in such admiration. This is the reason I have spent hours of my life gazing at every form of organism. Staring into the intricate irises in my cat’s eyes is entrancing. Examining the complexities of a leaf, or the veins in my arm is an unavoidable hobby when the saga that produced it is understood. We are all part of the elegant system that is our universe and our Earth.

When I stand with my legs in a Montana creek, letting the snowmelt wash over my trailbeaten feet, I cannot avoid thinking about the interconnectedness and diversity of the natural world. Far up the stream near its origin, gnarled roots from nearby Douglas Fir and Larch trees binds its bank together, offering the stream direction and preventing the precious freshwater from simply oozing into the ground. This allows animals of every shape to drink during the temperate months. Guided by the trees, the bitterly cold snow melt then undulates over butter smooth rocks, gaining momentum as gravity takes hold. The very force which pulled together stars from a massive hydrogen field so long ago my human brain (which is made of stardust) cannot comprehend it. Every single day I struggle to understand this robust, complicated, and astonishing natural system in which we are all allowed to live. Every single day I struggle to understand the human being’s need to destroy its home, and the sheer arrogance it takes to deny the cause of its destruction. According to the Census for Marine Life, eight point seven million is the new estimate for the number of species on our planet, and every single one should be afraid of us. It took billions of years to form our Earth, and we have taken roughly a hundred to damage it severely. Earth’s oceans are protecting us for the moment. According to IPCC’s Fourth Assessment Report published in 2007, the Earth has experienced a 0.55°C increase since the nineteen seventies. According to an analysis by the Graham Institute, if the same amount of heat that has entered the top two thousand meters of our oceans had gone into the lower ten kilometers of our atmosphere, the average temperature would have risen by 36℃. If we are measuring by the time scale of the universe, something catastrophic is approaching extremely quickly.

My mother raised a fair point when she said, “Why even go through the trouble if all the facts point to an apocalyptic, doom and gloom future?” There is still hope. The World Bank states that there are roughly 7.56 billion people on our planet. That’s a lot of brainpower. If a majority of people start to care about what happens to this natural haven we live on, we may have a chance of saving it. Figuring out how to live in sync with the Earth is the biggest challenge we have faced yet. Succeeding means we protect our beautiful and unlikely corner of the Universe.