Epic of Evolution

Epic of Evolution: Seven Ages of the Cosmos

ERIC CHAISSON
Illustrated by Lola Judith Chaisson
Copyright Date: 2005
Pages: 504
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7312/chai13560
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  • Book Info
    Epic of Evolution
    Book Description:

    How did everything around us-the air, the land, the sea, and the stars-originate? What is the source of order, form, and structure characterizing all material things? These are just some of the grand scientific questions Eric J. Chaisson, author of the classic work Cosmic Dawn, explores in his enthralling and illuminating history of the universe. Explaining new discoveries and a range of cutting-edge ideas and theories, Chaisson provides a creative and coherent synthesis of current scientific thinking on the universe's beginnings. He takes us on a tour of the seven ages of the cosmos, from the formless era of radiation through the origins of human culture. Along the way he examines the development of the most microscopic and the most immense aspects of our universe and the complex ways in which they interact.

    Drawing on recent breakthroughs in astrophysics and biochemistry, Chaisson discusses the contemporary scientific view that all objects-from quarks and quasars to microbes and the human mind-are interrelated. Researchers in all the natural sciences are beginning to identify an underlying pattern penetrating the fabric of existence-a sweepingly encompassing view of the formation, structure, and function of all objects in our multitudinous universe. Moreover, as Chaisson demonstrates, by deciphering the scenario of cosmic evolution, scientists can also determine how living organisms managed to inhabit the land, generate language, and create culture.

    Epic of Evolution offers a stunning view of how various changes, operating across almost incomprehensible domains of space and nearly inconceivable stretches of time and through the evolutionary combination of necessity and chance, have given rise to our galaxy, our star, our planet, and ourselves.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-50960-2
    Subjects: Ecology & Evolutionary Biology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xx)
  4. Prologue: COSMOLOGICAL OVERVIEW
    (pp. 1-46)

    EXPLORING THE ENTIRE UNIVERSE requires big thinking. And there are hardly bigger ideas than cosmological ones. Cosmology is the study of the structure, evolution, and destiny of the Universe—the totality of all known or supposed objects and phenomena, formerly existing, now present, or to come, taken as a whole. Here we strive to gain an appreciation for the properties of the Universe in bulk: its matter and energy, its size and scale, perhaps something about its origin and fate.

    Cosmic issues elicit grand perspective, and rightly so. Compared to the whole Universe truly writ large, its smaller contents such...

  5. 1. PARTICLE EPOCH: Simplicity Fleeting
    (pp. 47-78)

    WHAT WAS IT LIKE AT THE ORIGIN of the Universe? Exactly what happened at the instant of time’s beginning? Can anything concrete be said about the precise start of the Universe itself or about the prevailing conditions during its first few moments? And how have those conditions changed to give rise to the Universe we see around us today?

    These are surely fundamental questions. They are also hard questions. Yet they are among the most basic wonders that perhaps every thinking human being who has ever lived has contemplated in one way or another, at one time or another. Now,...

  6. 2. GALACTIC EPOCH: Hierarchy of Structures
    (pp. 79-131)

    DESCENDANTS OF OUR CIVILIZATION MAY never become advanced enough to journey far enough from our Milky Way Galaxy to look back and witness the full grandeur of our extended home in space; the finite speed of light is too limiting, the Galaxy too vast. A literal picture of our resident swarm of a hundred billion stars floating proudly and silently in the void of space may forever elude us. Yet, from our Earth-based vantage point in the suburbs of our Galaxy—nearly thirty thousand light-years from its hub—astronomers study the variety and spread of other colossal star systems well...

  7. 3. STELLAR EPOCH Forges for Elements
    (pp. 132-189)

    STARS ARE GLOWING BALLS of gas, tenuous and hot on the outside, dense and hotter on the inside. Sized midway between the smallest and largest of all known objects, stars are bigger than atoms by roughly the same factor of a billion billion by which they are dwarfed by galaxy clusters.

    Except for their shape, stars do not resemble hard, rocky planets in any way whatever. Normal stars are immensely larger and tremendously hotter than planets, and they experience changes in a completely different manner. They have no real surface, let alone any hard, solid matter as has Earth. Stars...

  8. 4. PLANETARY EPOCH Habitats for Life
    (pp. 190-247)

    PLANETS ARE GLOBES OF SOLIDS, liquids, and gases, smaller than stars and made partly of heavy elements. These worlds could not have formed early in the Universe. There simply were no appreciable heavy elements in the first few billion years. Planets had to await the birth and death of countless high-mass stars, the only known locales suitable for molding the heavies. Planets, then, are quite literally collections of the cinders of burned-out stars—balls of matter hardly relevant in the cosmological scheme of things, yet comfortable abodes for us sentient beings seeking to decipher (or is it create?) that larger...

  9. 5. CHEMICAL EPOCH Matter Plus Energy
    (pp. 248-297)

    NEARLY EVERYTHING ON EARTH is made of elements heavier than hydrogen and helium. We need not be clever chemists to realize that the air, land, and sea are all partially made of matter cooked in the hearts of stars. The heavies are an essential prerequisite for the continued evolution of complexity in the Universe. Although it sounds poetic to claim that much of everything around us—and within us—is “starstuff,” it happens to be true.

    The bluish oceans of liquid water consist partly of a heavy element, for water is after all not just two parts hydrogen but also...

  10. 6. BIOLOGICAL EPOCH: Complexity Sustained
    (pp. 298-368)

    OUR COSMIC-EVOLUTIONARY SCENARIO is really taking shape now. From stellar atoms to planetary molecules, we have explored plausible ways that galaxies, stars, planets, and life can be surveyed, in turn, along a single range of flowing energy and rising complexity. Indeed, the origin of life seems to be a natural consequence of the evolution of matter, and, further in turn, the evolution of that life, a natural process of yet more change with time.

    To grasp the entire spectacle of life—from past to present, from aardvark to zucchini—we must inquire beyond specialized, reductionistic analyses of simple matter. Single...

  11. 7. CULTURAL EPOCH: Intelligence to Technology
    (pp. 369-432)

    RISING COMPLEXITY IS AN INTEGRAL feature of cosmic evolution, an outstanding example of which is humankind itself. By no means an anthropocentric statement, our human complexity is clear and demonstrable. Large amounts of information are needed to describe ordered structures like ourselves in a Universe that is otherwise growing increasingly chaotic. We may not be the most well-adapted species on the planet (the microbes probably are), nor those with the greatest potential for long-term survival (the microbes again?), but we are currently the most complex clump of matter known anywhere. There’s no denying it.

    While approaching the here and now...

  12. Epilogue: A WHOLE NEW ERA
    (pp. 433-442)

    THE SCENARIO OF COSMIC EVOLUTION is a human invention. It’s a long and spectacular story, an evolutionary epic that includes the storyteller. Despite its seven major epochs, this grand narrative was not handed to us on a stone tablet atop some mountain. The scientific community has gradually deciphered the story, is now telling it forthrightly, and continues to refine it as we learn more.

    Nor is the idea that we are children of the Universe a new one. That notion may be as old as the earliest Homo sapiens to contemplate existence. Nor is the underlying concept of change especially...

  13. Further Reading
    (pp. 443-444)
  14. Glossary
    (pp. 445-462)
  15. Index
    (pp. 463-478)
  16. Back Matter
    (pp. 479-480)