When the first fire was harnessed—probably by our distant hominid ancestor, homo erectus —arguably a million years ago or more, it was the beginning of a gradual process of cultural and technical evolution. One insight led to another, and another, and another and following an exponential increase in the rate of innovation over the last 5,000 years, it culminated in this beautiful, terrifying, apocolyptic spectacle:
So it is with all of the progress of the human race. Without the insights of some very smart prehistoric ancestors, many of whom we wouldn’t recognise as human, we would have no Beethoven’s Fifth, no Wall Street bankers, no space shuttles, French restaurants or TV re-runs. Some of those giants upon whose shoulders Isaac Newton stood were those forever unnamed innovators who first devised a useful way to work a piece of flint; who first smoked a piece of meat; who figured out how to germinate a wheat seed and cultivate its plumpest offspring; who domesticated the wolf; and not least the great communicator who first persuaded her tribe to adopt the very first spoken word.
When setting out to catalogue the universe of science, where to begin is a quandary. We could be sensible and begin at the beginning. Unfortunately, understanding the beginning of the universe requires that we establish some prior knowledge.
When Max Ehrmann wrote these lines in The Desiderata:
You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here and whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.
he probably wasn’t intending to be taken literally. Nevertheless his statement is true in the most fundamental of ways.
In the beginning
[callout title=Ancient hearths]”The presence of burned seeds, wood, and flint at the Acheulian site of Gesher Benot Ya`aqov in Israel is suggestive of the control of fire by humans nearly 790,000 years ago. The distribution of the site’s small burned flint fragments suggests that burning occurred in specific spots, possibly indicating hearth locations. Wood of six taxa was burned at the site, at least three of which are edible—olive, wild barley, and wild grape.”
Nira Alperson and colleagues in Israel
The trillions of hydrogen atoms and a lesser number of helium atoms which make up around 10% of the mass of your body were forged in unimaginable heat and chaos a few minutes after the Big Bang.
The rest of you is made of stardust.
For the first few billion years after the formation (or, if you prefer, the creation) of the universe the building blocks of life didn’t exist. We had to wait for the nuclear-powered fires of the first generation of hydrogen stars to die down so that they could collapse under their own massive gravity and go nova. In the thermo-nuclear inferno of those supernovae the hydrogen and lithium atoms were fusion-forged by the same processes as the hydrogen bomb into carbon, oxygen, iron, nitrogen and all the other heavier elements which provided the ingredients for complex organic molecules, living cells, tyrannosaurus rex, and Elvis Presley.
The enormous swirling clouds of dust from those early novae had to coalesce over millions of years into clouds substantial enough to allow gravitational attraction to accumulate the raw materials into new stars, planets, asteroids and comets embodying the building blocks of life. That accretion process continues right now throughout our galaxy and in the billions of galaxies beyond.
That’s not a great place to start our voyage, first we need to understand the processes involved in nuclear fusion, organic chemistry, star formation, planet building and explosions capable of shattering galaxies. Until just 3 or 4 centuries ago that was all a total mystery to even the most fearsome of intellects.
My nomination for the breakthrough which set off a scientific renaissance and the subsequent industrial/technical revolution is glass grinding.
Through a lens darkly
It could be argued that the giant leap for mankind which contributed most to opening up our understanding of the universe was the discovery of the lens. On a micro level and a macro level this was a vital step. A game-changer. In order to start mankind’s march to domination of our tiny corner of the universe we needed the telescope and the microscope.
The glass lens gave us both. And spectacles to boot.
Anthony van Leeuvenhoek could probably have benefited from a lesson or two in afterplay.