The Scale and History of the Universe

Interacting with the universe as a whole

Posted Mar 06, 2012

As evidenced by the diagrams that make up the Tree of Knowledge System, I think it is valuable that we teach individuals broad frames to think about the Universe and our place in it. That was why I was so excited to stumble upon the following interactive website called The Scale of the Universe, developed by 14-year-old (!) Cary Huang. Please check it out if you have not already.

My personal focus has been more on emphasizing the history and evolution of complexity, rather than on highlighting scale and scope. But they go nicely together. Below I offer my narrative of the Universe. Reading it in connection with Huang's wonderful visual of scope provides a general frame for envisioning our place in the universe. 

In the beginning there was no space or time or matter, only an Energy Singularity that some call God. Then, 13.7 billion years ago, there was the first cause; a chain reaction in the Energy Singularity that resulted in the primordial flaring forth called the Big Bang. During the very first phases of this chain reaction pure energy quanta froze into elementary particles, giving birth to Matter, the first dimension of complexity. Fermions are the fundamental building blocks of matter, and they ultimately interact to form all the matter in the universe. Space and time also emerged from the primordial event. After several hundred thousand years, the incredibly dense, hot universe expanded to the point at which energy and matter decoupled. The electromagnetic behavior that escaped is called cosmic microwave background radiation, and it now provides us a window to view our earliest beginnings.

As the universe continued to expand and cool, matter formed into atomic systems and large collections of gases condensed and formed into stars and galaxies. This variation in energy dispersal created many different types of energy-matter environments, which in turn allowed for the formation of a variety of different types of atoms now represented and categorized by the Periodic Table. The atoms that now make up our bodies were formed in the bellies of stars and then dispersed throughout the universe in magnificent explosions. We are, thus, made from stardust.

Atoms link up through the process of covalent bonding and create increasingly complex chemical systems. One particular environment, found on a planet orbiting an average size star in the Milky Way Galaxy, has been especially conducive to the formation of complex chemical systems. The chemical systems on the surface of planet Earth four billion years ago exhibited a wide variety of complex behaviors. One behavior of a particular class of these complex chemical systems was the behavior of self-replication. Through the process of replication, variation, and selection, these self-replicating chemical systems became increasingly complex and sophisticated and eventually formed into huge strands of ribonucleic acid. Over the next several hundred million years these self-replicating chemical machines transformed into primitive cells, then cells with a nucleus, and finally into large scale, multi-cellular organisms, similar in complexity to modern day plants. The span of time ranging from 4 billion years ago to 700 million years ago saw the emergence of the second dimension of complexity, Life, which evolved via natural selection operating on genetic combinations across the generations.

Between approximately 640 and 550 million years ago, a new type of multi-cellular creature emerged that moved around in its environment. The capacity for movement resulted in the evolution of a computational control center that measures the animal's relationship to its environment and moves it toward beneficial and away from harmful environments. The nervous system represented a fundamental shift in complexity because behavior of animals is not fully restricted to information processed epigenetically. Instead, mental behavior is mediated by the information instantiated in and processed by the nervous system, and animals learn to generate new behavioral outputs in response to novel environmental stimuli. The period from 640 million years ago to five million years ago saw the evolution of the third dimension of complexity, Mind.

The period from five million years ago through today saw the emergence of the fourth dimension of complexity, Culture, which occurred for one particular animal, the human animal. Bipedalism freed the hands and created more opportunities for behaviors like tool making, which in turn created selection pressures for increased neuro-cognitive capacities and more complicated social interactions. The evolution of human language is generally thought to have occurred between 500,000 and 50,000 years ago. This period is associated with substantial growth of the cortical structures, as well as changes in throat structures associated with language and is also associated with the emergence of our modern ancestors, Homo sapiens.

Between 50,000 and 30,000 years ago, there was an explosion of cultural artifacts, such as carved statues, artwork in caves, and burials with ornamentation. Modern humans began to appear in landscapes all over the world. And the pace of change only accelerated. Agriculture appeared approximately 12,000 years ago, setting the stage for large-scale civilizations. Large-scale systems of belief emerged that coordinated the behaviors of huge populations of people. In more recent times, these justification systems have branched into different domains such as religion, law, mathematics, and philosophy.

Several hundred years ago a new method for constructing justification systems emerged, called science. Built on the value of objective evidence, the scientific method allowed humans to develop increasingly accurate models of complexity and change, and this has given birth to new, previously unimaginable technologies and allowed humans more self-knowledge and more freedom to determine their destiny than any other creature on Earth.

And yet there remains much uncertainty. With technology has come an unprecedented capacity to destroy the planet. Resources are being used up, populations are exploding, and planetary wide changes are occurring in ecologies around the world. And although technology continues to evolve at an astounding pace, it is not clear that humanity's wisdom has likewise increased. Instead, the divisions between nations, religions, ideologies, and ethnicities seem as rigid and fragmented as ever, and it is not hard to envision how serious disruptions in available resources might lead to wide-scale devastation, perhaps even the elimination of the human species.