As the Polish astronomer and theorist Nicholas Copernicus is given credit for having demonstrated that man’s home planet, Earth, does not have “center stage” in the solar system, so too should such latter day theorists as Eric Chaisson, author of Cosmic Dawn: The Origins of Matter and Life, be given credit for having taken the Copernican vision of man’s place in the universe one step further. Chaisson and other contemporary thinkers believe that the Earth not only is a vassal of the sun but also is little more than an obscure planet in a mediocre galaxy (the Milky Way) in an out-of-the-way nook at the outer fringes of the universe. Earth, in Chaisson’s view, would be absolutely banal to the point of insignificance if it were not home to one of the glories of the universe; namely, life.
By reading Chaisson, one is allowed to participate in the greatest events of all time, including the chaotic burst of energy that set the universe in motion. One sees stars born, then watches their solar engines glow, falter, and, after eons too mind-boggling to comprehend, die, their densities becoming so incredibly crushing that, upon occasion and for no reason yet known, black holes are created—the great “vacuum cleaners” of space, capable of drawing in galaxies and extinguishing their winking stars. It is an alien world of enormous distances, horrible explosions, massive clouds of matter, raging fires, colliding celestial bodies.
Like all readable writers dealing with this difficult subject, Chaisson forces his readers to rid themselves of those mental blinders which restrict imagination in order to see the grand happenings occurring throughout the eons since the big bang. What they get is a godlike view of everything known about the universe’s formation and development.
Chaisson reserves his greatest admiration for the way in which Earth was formed, beginning as a dust and debris-filled cloud and ending as a compact ball of matter having just the right ingredients necessary to support the first crude stirrings of life.
To the author, there was no “black magic” involved in the earth’s formation nor was there any in the evolution of life from primeval slime to human being. Rather, what occurred was a natural progression of events “whereby elementary building blocks of matter result from clashes among pockets of energetic radiation.”
Using the imagery of volcanic activity, Chaisson portrays the eruption of matter, the spewing forth of dust and rock which hurtled outward from the center of the primal blast at the beginning of time. As material traveled outward, its speed slowed, so that, in time, it cooled and joined with other clouds of matter to form huge clouds which, still later, would condense to form planets and stars.
Chaisson does a fine job of describing the emergence of living things from inorganic matter. Out of nucleic acids such as deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), whose molecules line up to form the structure of all living creatures, life emerged several billion years ago. Nourished by solar energy, increasingly complex forms of life developed, beginning with the basic proteinold microspheres and ending with highly complex creatures such as the apes, the great cats, and, of course, man.
As the author sees it, the capacity of living things to adapt to adverse circumstances is what saved life from dying out during its early period. Just as people have the capacity to deal successfully with new and often challenging circumstances, so did the forms of life that evolved from the one-celled organisms.
Natural selection was at work from the start, since the one-celled creatures learned to make full use of the sun, becoming more efficient as they became more complex. Creatures living in the warm soup of ancient seas, because they negotiated dangerous situations at every turn, developed in various ways, each trying to adapt in its own way. Some developed intriguing ways of luring prey while others evolved ways of meeting the threats of predators through camouflage, body shape, or menacing gestures. Over the millenia, sea creatures devised ever more efficient gills, fins, directional and warning systems, and streamlining. Those which did not adapt quickly enough did not survive. Some, of course, made the leap from ocean-dwelling to land-dwelling, and in so doing assured that the land would sport the diversity of creatures found for so many millions of years beneath the seas.
All of this, to be sure, is old hat; many scientists have said as much for years. Yet Chaisson tells the story of evolution with such verve and vigor that it is somehow fresh and inspirational. The story of life emanating from primeval ooze and changing in form and complexity is only part of...
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