Chapter 2 - Life's Origins

Chapter 2
        Billions of years ago, at a place whose traces have since been churned into the restless Earth, the motor of life first turned over. Chemical shards built into chunks of RNA and then into the rudiments of a working cell. From a simple beginning Darwin’s “endless forms most beautiful and wonderful” have evolved to carpet the planet.
        An old man and his grandson regard the scene. Their starry silhouette is a reminder that we are all stardust, our generations of atoms cycled through cosmic cauldrons. The Moon was our first guide to tracking deep time, the word itself from a Greek root meaning to measure. Its cratered surface is a mirror of the Earth’s violent history and the random impacts that disrupt evolution. Yet it also stabilizes the Earth’s orbit, making the planet more convivial to biology. More recently we have miniaturized our timekeeping, using vibrations of atoms and the precise shimmering of light waves and the radioactive decay of massive atoms—the clock in the rock. Below, the book of life is laid out like crumpled pages in the strata below our feet. The story of evolution on Earth is read from slowly mutating base pairs of DNA, but it degrades with time like paper turning to dust. Reanimating a dinosaur from the blood sucked by an insect, subsequently trapped in amber, would be like trying to reconstruct a library from a few scattered book pages.
        We are the universe and the universe is us. Water and carbon are leitmotifs in this story. Water is the placental fluid, the universal solvent, carried onto land when animals left the sea. Carbon is the universal building block. Its delicate forms are etched on glass. The specimen jar is an allusion to Miller and Urey and famous “life in a bottle” experiments, which recreated the first steps from simple molecules to amino acids. Within the jar, carbon is mixed with silica in a layer of mud, an allusion to clay sheets as templates for the first replicator—the story of the Golem. The ash is combustion, the energy released in life and death. Carbon cycles in and out of the biosphere every million years or so, and has done so thousands of times since life began. A crystal is carbon formed under enormous pressure. The chip of zircon that results is the oldest thing on Earth. In our most thoughtful moments we can see heaven in a grain of sand.

About the Artist

Heather Green is a graduate student in the College of Fine Arts at the University of Arizona and a second generation Tucsonan. Her current work is informed by her lifelong relationship with the headland of La Cholla near Puerto Peñasco, Mexico, a passion for old science books, and her love of the natural world. She has designed exhibits about sustainable fisheries and materials for conservation initiatives, and is currently developing a virtual museum about La Cholla.

Chapter 2

Life's Origins

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