Probable Impossibilities: Musings on Beginnings and Endings
I will tell you a thing that is both impossible and true. You were born from a tiny seed within your mother. And she was born from a tiny seed within her mother. And she from her mother. And so on, back and back through the dim hallways of time until we arrive at a particular cave in Africa, a hundred thousand years in the past, with a particular woman sitting by a fire. That woman knew nothing of cities or automobiles or electricity. But if we could follow her daughters through time, we would eventually arrive at you. If each of those daughters of daughters had pressed an inky thumb on a large piece of parchment, one following the other, there would today be several thousand thumbprints on that parchment, leading from that ancestral woman a hundred thousand years ago to your thumbprint today.
If this story does not seem impossible, or at least incomprehensible, let’s go further back in time. According to modern analysis of the DNA of fossil animals, your ancestral mother descended from more primitive creatures, and those from more primitive, until we reach single-celled organisms squirming and gyrating in a primeval sea. And those first living organisms emerged from the billions of random collisions of lifeless molecules, by chance forming things that could spawn more of themselves and tap energy from the roiling sea. And before that, the ancient air of Earth—methane and ammonia and water vapor and nitrogen—blew over the seething volcanoes. And before, the gases swirled and condensed from a cloud in the primeval solar system.
I will tell one final story. Every atom in your body except for hydrogen and helium was made in stars long ago and blown into space when those stars exploded—much later to be tossed into the air and soil and oceans of Earth and eventually incorporated into your body. How do we know? Evidence supports the Big Bang theory, which holds that our universe began in a state of extremely high density and temperature and has been expanding and cooling since. In the first moments after t = 0, the universe was far too hot for atoms to hold together. During the first three minutes, the universe cooled enough for the simplest atomic nuclei, hydrogen and helium, to form, but was thinning out too rapidly to make carbon and oxygen and nitrogen and all the other atoms our bodies are made of. According to nuclear physicists, the formation of those atoms occurred hundreds of millions of years later, when gravity was able to pull together large masses of gas to form stars. The temperatures and densities at the centers of those masses again began to mount, starting nuclear reactions, which fused the existing hydrogen and helium atoms into the other atoms in our bodies. Some of those stars exploded, seeding space with the newly forged atoms. With our telescopes, we have seen exploding stars and analyzed the chemical composition of their debris. We have confirmed the theory. If you could tag all the atoms in your body and follow them backward in time, every atom, except for hydrogen and helium, would return to a star. We are as certain of this story as we are that the continents were once joined.
Less certain but supported by compelling calculations are the infinities, the infinity of the small and the infinity of the large. The unending world of ever smaller things within the atom, and the unending world of ever larger things, beyond our telescopes. Between these two endpoints of the imagination are we human beings, fragile and brief, clutching our thin slice of reality.
Also by Alan Lightman
Between Nothingness and Infinity
What Came Before the Big Bang?
One Hundred Billion
The Anatomy of Attention
The Ghost House of My Childhood
In Defense of Disorder
Our Lonely Home in Nature
Is Life Special?
The Man Who Knows Infinity
A Note About the Author
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|February 3, 2022|
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