Monday, July 30, 2012

Mothers All the Way Down

Not long ago, I stood with my nine-year old daughter Jade on a rocky knoll over the ocean near our home. Minutes earlier, the sun’s orange disk had slipped below the horizon. In the distance, San Francisco began to glow. Much further away, starlit pinpoints began poking through the darkening dome overhead. We watched a clan of turkey vultures execute spiraling descents before settling for the night in a eucalyptus tree. As we began our own short descent toward home, it seemed as good a time as any to tell Jade the Universe Story, that grand saga of everything. 

This story, perhaps science's greatest contribution, is all but absent from our culture. As a result, a major proportion of people in the industrialized world live without any cosmology to root them to the earth, to the rest of humanity, and to the place they call home. With the exception of Montessori schools, even our education system has ignored this epic tale. As the all-encompassing story of us, the Universe Story deserves to be center stage in homes and classrooms around the country. What most folks don't realize is that the story of everything can be told anywhere, in an hour or less. Every place has the makings for a simple, yet dynamic retelling. And home turf is often best. 

I began with a flourish. “Once upon a time 14 billion years ago, the universe was born in a humongous explosion called the Big Bang. At the moment of its birth, the entire universe was super-hot—trillions of degrees—and crammed into the tiniest of spaces, far smaller than a speck of dust.” (For effect, I revealed a grain of sand held in my palm.) “Zooming into existence, the universe cooled as it expanded, starting off as a simple place with no stars, no planets, and no life.

“Stars came first, born from sprawling clouds of hydrogen gas. The pull of gravity caused parts of these clouds to collapse into giant balls. As they shrank smaller and smaller, these hydrogen balls grew hotter and hotter until, suddenly, their cores burst into flames and began to burn incredibly bright. What had once been a simple cloud of gas now held thousands of glowing suns. These newborn stars gathered with others in huge, spiraling cities of stars called galaxies, each one with billions of suns. Our home galaxy, the Milky Way, looks to us like a thin veil of light crossing the night sky. But point a telescope at that veil and you’ll find that it’s jam-packed with stars.

“Although stars are pretty simple—just enormous balls of hot gas—they share a lot in common with people. They’re born, have lifetimes, and die. They come in different sizes and, like you, go through many changes as they age. A major difference between stars and people, though, is how they die. Truly gigantic stars go out with a bang, exploding in monstrous events called supernovas. A single supernova can outshine all the other billions of stars in its home galaxy! Astronomers have discovered these exploding stars in distant galaxies, but the last one seen in the Milky Way was over four hundred years ago, just before the first telescope was invented. So stargazers on Earth are waiting excitedly for the next supernova in our little corner of the cosmos.”

I stooped to pick up a hunk of sandstone, handed it to Jade, and continued.

“Deep inside the cores of those very first stars, all that burning transformed hydrogen into heavier and heavier bits of stuff, like helium, carbon, oxygen, and iron. When giant stars exploded as supernovas, all of this heavy matter cooked up inside their cores was blown out into surrounding space, creating more clouds of gas and dust. Rumbling shock waves from later supernovas then triggered the collapse of these wispy clouds into new stars.

The leftover heavy stuff swirling around newborn suns became families of planets. Our sun was one of those later stars, born with eight circling planets—from little, rocky worlds like Earth and Mars to gas giants like Jupiter and Saturn. Billions of other solar systems are traveling around other stars in the Milky Way, and in other galaxies. So the stars gave birth to the planets. And all the stuff that makes up planets—from that rock in your hand to the entire Earth—was created inside a burning star.”

Jade’s eyes widened and she handled the chunk of stardust gingerly, as if it might still be hot.

“When Earth was born, it was red-hot, bubbling with molten lava. There was no life back then. Not even any land or oceans. Over millions of years, the surface cooled and formed a thin crust. Think of a hot apple pie, and you’ll get the idea. Earth’s rocky crust split into enormous chunks that moved around, bumping into each other. You and I are standing on the Marin Headlands, made mostly of rocks that formed underwater during the Age of Dinosaurs. But this particular slab of Earth’s crust, including that rock you’re holding, started way down south near the equator. Over millions of years, the land crawled slowly northward, traveling about the same speed as your fingernails grow. Eventually, it crunched into North America down near Mexico and was shoved northward, setting off earthquakes as it inched its way up to where we are today, near San Francisco Bay.”

 Jade grasped the rock tightly and whispered, “Coooool.” Upon reaching the beach, we trod barefoot into the surf, the icy vestiges of waves dancing across our legs and feet. Stooping to gather a cupped handful of seawater, I said, “How many living things do you think I’m holding?”

“Millions,” she guessed.

“Hundreds of millions,” I replied slowly. “The oceans are overflowing with tiny bits of life.”

Jade scooped up her own watery sample, staring intently in hopes of glimpsing the bacterial bounty.

“Life got its start here in the sea,” I continued, “made from stuff in Earth’s crust. The earliest kinds of life were bacteria, each one made of a single cell. And believe it or not, for most of the past four billion years, all life on Earth has been one-celled and microscopic. But those early bacteria were amazing. They learned how to do things like breathe oxygen and grab energy from the sun.”

From amongst the flotsam and jetsam, I grabbed something long and whip-like.

“Hundreds of millions of years later, some of the sunlight-eating bacteria began to merge with each other, becoming creatures with many cells. Their descendents gave rise to seaweed like this bull kelp, and also to land plants.”

We continued down the beach, with Jade clutching her rock in one hand and now dragging the bull kelp with the other. After crossing a creek, we paused to visit some familiar neighbors at the junction of land, sea, and air. Unable to discern much in the gathering darkness, I encouraged Jade to gently feel the bevy of rock-clinging critters: thickly ridged shells of blue muscles, granular arms of ochre sea stars, leathery “necks” of goose barnacles, and tiny swirls of checkered periwinkles. The squishy stickiness of a giant green anemone elicited a delighted scream. Amidst the din of breaking waves we could hear the scurryings of rock crabs.

“Alongside the sunlight-catchers, other kinds of life learned to feed on the sun’s energy by eating each other. These were ancient ancestors that would one day give birth to animals, including the sea stars, muscles, and barnacles on these rocks. Fishes appeared early on too, becoming top predators in the seas. The great white sharks out at the Farallon Islands, and the Coho salmon that struggle up Redwood Creek each year, are direct descendents of those primitive fishes. Eventually, a few ancient fishes found their way onto the land, first transforming into amphibians and much later into reptiles. Some of those scaly reptiles became dinosaurs that stomped around right here on the coast of North America. A few of those dinosaurs sprouted feathers, and then wings, reinventing themselves as birds like those turkey vultures we saw awhile ago.”

I settled on a chunk of driftwood and Jade immediately clambered onto my lap. We were nearing the story’s end.

“When people first arrived here around 15,000 years ago, the place resembled the Serengeti of Africa today, with lots of huge herbivores. Mammoth, mastodon, giant ground sloth, horses, camels, and bison all roamed along this coast. There were plenty of big carnivores too: American lions, dire wolves, saber-toothed cats, and giant short-faced bears. It was the Ice Age, a very cold time when so much water was locked up in ice that the oceans shrunk and sea levels dropped. Back then, the land between where we’re sitting and the Farallon Islands, more than 20 miles away, became a grassy plain jam-packed with animals. Imagine being able to walk from here to the Farallons, keeping a watchful eye out for elephants and saber-toothed cats!

“Sometime after those big mammals went extinct and the oceans grew bigger again, humans arrived, including the Coast Miwok people. They lived here for thousands of years, sharing the oak forests and grasslands with wolves, grizzly bear, and soaring condors. The Miwok hunted mule deer, fished for salmon, ground up acorns, and made woven baskets. When Europeans first arrived about 200 years ago, people from Portugal decided to settle in this beautiful spot where they could catch salmon and farm the land. Today, you and I are fortunate to share this place with bobcats, skunks, and red-tailed hawks. Many others will come after us.”

Approaching the lights of home, I knelt and looked Jade in the eye.

“The real secret of this story is that the universe’s journey is your journey. Your Mom wasn’t the only one responsible for your birth. It was your grandmother, and, before that, your great grandmother and great great grandmother. It was the long, unbroken chain of mammal mothers, reptile mothers, and amphibian mothers. We also owe deep thanks to our fish mothers and the countless other sea creatures and bacteria that gave rise to them even further back in time. Earth Mother gave birth to the first life, and the Great Cosmic Mother birthed the first stars. So you see, in the cosmic family tree, from the tips of the topmost branches to the deepest roots, it’s mothers all the way down! Without them, you and I wouldn’t be here, and neither would all the other wondrous creatures on this planet.

“Most important of all, the journey is far from over. Every plant and animal alive today, including us, is part of this journey, and nobody can say for sure how things are going to turn out. So you can make a big difference in the future of the universe. Pretty amazing, huh?”

Jade nodded slowly, paused, and then broke into a wide smile. “C’mon daddy,” she blurted out, now sprinting up the stairs still gripping rock and kelp. “We’ve got to tell Momma!”

Image Credits (top to bottom)
3-5) National Geographic
6) Author photo