Origin Story

Not long ago a friend put a piece of the earth’s crust in my hand. When I first held the rock, I was stunned. Its exceptional density is the most visible and tactile characteristic, but just holding it in my hand, it seemed I was feeling the electro-magnetic pulse of the earth itself.

Not stunning or grandiose in any way, this humble rock is surprisingly appealing with both the large vein and the little intermittent splashes of pink set against the dark charcoal. The precision cut on four sides and the two remaining rough sides juxtapose its natural state with the human intervention enacted upon it. I loved everything about this rock. Most of all I loved that I was holding and looking at something formed so close to the beginning of time on this much larger piece of rock we inhabit.

In the current tenuous period for our species’ continued habitation of this orb, to connect so tangibly with what facilitated our existence and will ultimately shrug us off of itself, well, this is a very special thing. That the opportunity to experience such a thing was possible still amazes me.

The Acasta gneiss (pronounced “nice”) was first described in 1989 as an outcrop of tonalite gneiss located along the banks of certain remote areas of the Acasta River in the Northwest Territory of Canada, east of Great Bear Lake and approximately 200 miles from Yellowknife.[1] Radiometrically dated at a staggering 4.031 billion years, it is the oldest known intact crustal rock on the planet. It was formed during the Hadean—our earliest eon.

Planet Earth was created 4.6 billion years ago from a roiling mass of primordial chemistry and geology. Hundreds of millions of years before the simplest cells appeared here, the Acasta gneiss was metamorphosed from its initial granitoid state. The forces I sensed when holding the rock become comprehensible when one imagines outlasting the intensity of the constant heat, pressure, erosion and tectonic shifting that were brought to bear on this fragment of earth’s crust for 4,000,000,000 years. Now imagine what came before that . . . 

In the Beginning (or so it goes) . . .

Approximately 13.8 billion years ago, the universe expanded beyond a singularity, a single point of intense heat and infinite density believed to contain all current energy, matter and space-time. The singularity inflated to become a still-expanding cosmos, probably as a result of quantum fluctuations. That singularity and the immediate nano seconds following the Big Bang (10-43seconds), are still a mystery to physicists, but in an infinitesimally short period of time after that (10-11seconds), the expansion proceeded at unimaginable magnitudes.

The mysterious primal event was not literally a bang. If we are to think of it as an explosion at all, we have to think of it as an explosion of space rather than of matter or anything else exploded into space. As such, there was neither center nor outer boundary to the “explosion.” Because there was nothing other than the singularity, there was nowhere, no space, for anything to expand into. Rather, it was an expansion of space itself, in all directions. And always, then and now, it was not the objects in space that expanded; it was the space itself—the space between the objects—that expanded and continues to do so.

Following the initial expansion, the universe cooled to a degree permitting the formation of simple matter—subatomic particles. Next, simple atoms were formed, and then immense clouds of these early elements evolved into galaxies and stars within the galaxies when the force of gravity acted upon the primordial clouds. Some of these stars, including our sun, were created within a spinning disk of gas and dust. As the remains of the disk continued spinning around the newly formed sun, its gas and dust accumulated into small bodies which became larger bodies. Ultimately, some of these bodies coalesced into the nine planets and their satellites that make up our solar system.  

(source: Pexels)

When the planet Earth formed 4.6 billion years ago, the cloud from which it was formed consisted primarily of hydrogen (H), helium (He), and very small portions of the other chemical elements existing in the universe at that time, but the molten planet was too hot to contain the volatile gases that made up the sun. Only relatively stable materials like iron and rocky silicates made up the Earth’s metallic core and silicate mantle. Over time, through intense volcanic and intrusive activity, the earth’s crust formed from materials less dense and more readily melted than the mantle. At this point, an atmosphere was essentially non-existent.

As meteors and comets from the remaining cloud pummeled the newly forming planet for the next 500 million years, they introduced additional volatile materials. The roiling molten orb was now cooling through a repetitive process of formation, turnover, and reformation of its mantle which continuously released the volatile gases and liquids. The vaporized water condensed and formed the earth’s oceans, and the outgassing (including those water vapors) formed a very basic atmosphere. The conditions for life were setting up.  

For all that we humans express certainty regarding the things we believe that we know, we do not know exactly when or how life began here on earth. Scientists feel confident that simple bacterial organisms existed 3.5 billion years ago, but there may have been bacterial forms existing in the planet’s nascent crust as early as 4 billion years ago—about the same time as the Acasta gneiss was formed.

The field of biology today has as its primary mechanism the sequencing of four kinds of nucleotides in two kinds of molecules—DNA and RNA—which transmit hereditary information. The sequencing of these nucleotides within the DNA and RNA directs the formation of protein molecules which catalyze biochemical reactions that provide the structural components of and direct the functions performed by the living organism. When biologists conduct experiments that simulate conditions on a primitive Earth, some of the chemical components of DNA and RNA are produced. Some of these same molecules have been found on meteorites and in interstellar space, leading scientists to believe that these primitive components necessary for the formation of life could have been present in the early periods of Earth’s existence.  

The question of how chemistry became biology—how life was first sparked on Earth—is really a question about the transformational process of how a living cell was created from non-living compounds. Current avenues of exploration related to this question range from thermal vents on the ocean floor to “seeding” of the earth by an extraterrestrial source. These attempts to locate the source of life on Earth are associated with what Charles Eisenstein sees as a deeply held belief that while the planet is a suitable host for life, it is not itself alive, “that life is but a fortuitous biological scum atop an inanimate rock.” He refers us instead to James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis’s Gaia Theory, a living systems view in which geology and biology are no longer conceptually separate and life creates the conditions for life.

(source: Pexels)

Whatever the answer to how life was created on Earth turns out to be, the forms of life have taken vastly different shapes throughout the approximately 4 billion years of life on this planet. From multi-cell eukaryotes to arthropods to giant lizards to tiny mammals to megafauna to Neanderthals and Homo Sapiens, Earth has not only been suitable for life; thus far it seems to be unable to do without it.

Just A Matter of Time

At this point, the most accepted theory about the formation of the universe and, ultimately, the creation of life on Earth (remember, we are stardust) is what we know of as the Big Bang theory. It is still the defining narrative for cosmological existence, a story with a beginning, a middle, and a projected end.

When I was at the University of California at Berkeley, I was pursuing a minor in astronomy and took a class called Descriptive Cosmology with a young British professor. The class was excellent. It started at “today” and told the story of the universe—according to the Big Bang theory—working backward to the point of singularity described above. The idea was that at the end of the term we should be able to read our notes from end to beginning with a perfect sense of how it all happened, how the universe—and thus we—came to be. In this class, we were starting with the familiar and moving inexorably to the unfamiliar.

Because my major was philosophy, this open-minded physicist was willing to let me write my requisite term-paper on the notion of time as it relates to the history of the universe from a philosophical as much as a physical perspective. What I found most intriguing in doing research for that paper was the idea of a point at which there was no time—no arrows backward or forward, no beginning or ending, nothing that comfortably mirrors the terms we think in perpetually today.

Origin stories are grounded in the concept of time. They are about looking back into the past to our beginning, our point of inception to explore how things came to be. We want to know about our past. We never stop seeking a more clear and compelling narrative about our beginnings. And for our species, the ultimate beginning is when and how our universe came into being. Origin stories that deal specifically with the creation of the universe are called cosmogonic origin stories.

When I look back over this post to this point, it seems impossible to have written any of it without reference to time. The Acasta gneiss is “formed so close to the beginning of time.” It is dated at “4.031 billion years” ago, “the oldest known,” from the Hadean—“our earliest eon.” And according to the Big Bang theory, the singularity expanded to become our universe “13.8 billion years ago.” But it is not just the number of years that speak about time here. Time-bound references like “outlasting,” “immediate,” “following,” “initial,” “next,” and so on are found throughout the telling of the story. More than that, almost every verb is in the past tense: “cooled,” “evolved,” “preceded.” And these verbs by their very nature include the concept of time in their definition.

Questions regarding the origin of space and time and their association with the origin of the universe are essentially unanswerable yet they persist. From the time of Aristotle to that of Einstein in the early twentieth century, it was taken as a given that the universe was fixed and everlasting. Time was understood to be as infinite as the universe, extending as far back and as far forward without end.

Today, most Big Bang proponents assume that time was created at the point of the Big Bang. But there are also suggestions that time went in one direction before the Big Bang and in the direction we experience it as since the Big Bang. It that case, the universe was contracting prior to 14 billion years ago—the inverse of its expansion for the past 14 billion years. The Big Bang was the demarcation point at which the essential characteristics of time and space reversed themselves. As close as we come to this conception is around a millionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second following the Big Bang.

What we call the Big Bang theory was initially the conception of Georges Lemaître in 1927. A Belgian priest and physicist, Lemaître proposed that the universe was receding as a consequence of an initial explosion resulting in the creation of space-time. (Two years later, American astronomer Edwin Hubble confirmed the universal expansion underpinning Lemaître’s theory.) This idea of time having an inception point flew in the face of long-standing dogma. Then and today, Lemaître’s theory is rejected by some as having a Roman Catholic agenda that injects a Genesis scenario[1] into astrophysical concerns. The Steady State theory and the Big Bang theory became the two principal theories competing to explain the creation and ongoing state of the universe. In the former, time was without beginning or end; in the latter it has both a beginning and an end.

Still related to the Big Bang theory but going further to explain that from which the singularity arose is the idea of the multiverse. In this theory, the universe in which we reside is but one of a multitude of universes. Each one of these many oscillating universes continuously gives birth to new universes.[2] In theories related to the multiverse, each of the universes exist on separate time trajectories that continuously arise in every new moment.

These unfamiliar and sometimes mind-bending conceptions of time can keep us bound to narratives that feel comfortably linear, familiar even. As the Big Bang Theory continues to be modified or replaced altogether by the observations and theories of current and future generations of astronomers and physicists, it’s worthwhile to remember that cultures around the world have for millennia formulated cosmogonic origin stories as answers to their own questions about the creation of the universe. These origin stories often step outside of the time-bound conceptions that English and most other Western languages have embedded within them. From the aboriginal cultures of Australia to Hindu cosmologies in Southeast Asian cultures, from Mayan and other Indigenous cultures of the Americas to African, Mid-Eastern, ancient Greek and Roman, Nordic and Celtic cultures, there are artifacts, sites, and mythologies that provide different understandings of what happened “in the beginning.”

Who knows how it was, and who shall declare
Whence it was born and whence it came?
The gods are later than this creation;
Who knows, then, whence it has sprung?

Whence this created world came,
And whether he made it or not,
He alone who sees all in the highest heaven
Knows--or does not know.

 From the Rig-Veda, X, 129. (Cf. MacNicol trans., Hindu Scriptures, p. 37)

[1] Thanks to Carolyn Pogue who wrote about this oldest known rock in her book Rock of Ages, and to her intrepid nephew Mark Brown who fell in love with the Acasta gneiss as his “rock to stand on.” A northern prospector, Brown came across an obscure map marking the spot where the oldest rock on the planet had been discovered. After learning all he could about it, Brown began making the difficult and expensive trip to the outcrop once every year or two. He brings back pieces of the gneiss and fashions it into spheres and jewelry. The raw piece I held was one of those retrieved by Mark Brown.

[2] In Christianity, the Bible tells the Creation story of Genesis, in which God spoke the universe into existence over the course of six days (on the seventh day, God rested). During the six days, God created the cosmos through the separation of sky, earth, and sea. Stars and other celestial bodies were created and placed in the sky. On Earth, plants and animals were brought to life on the land and in the water. When all was readied, God created humankind from the dust and mud on the ground, blowing into the figures the breath of life so that God would have companions in the universe.

[3] A version of this is called the M-Brane Theory which maintains that the Big Bang transpired as a result of the collision of two hyperdimensional membranes of reality.

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