Sunday, January 26, 2014

Biogenesis: The Emergence of Life on Earth (1/26/14)

Biogenesis:  The Emergence of Life on Earth
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

January 26, 2014

Genesis and Richard Dawkins
And God said, Let the earth bring forth the living creature after his kind, cattle, and creeping thing, and beast of the earth after his kind: and it was so.

And God made the beast of the earth after his kind, and cattle after their kind, and every thing that creepeth upon the earth after his kind: and God saw that it was good.

Every species is a cousin of every other.  Any two species are descended from an ancestral species, which split in two.  For example, the common ancestor of people and budgerigars lived about 310 million years ago.  The ancestral species split in two, and the two strands went their separate ways for the rest of time.

Genesis 1:24-25
Richard Dawkins, The Greatest Show on Earth:  
The Evidence for Evolution (New York:  Free Press, 2009), p. 254.

I ended last week’s sermon like this:

If you were able to time travel to 500 million years after The Big Thwack, to about four billion years ago, you would visit a blue and gray Earth.   You could bring your towel and lie on a beach.   Nothing green.  No trees, no grass, no fishies.   It would be quite beautiful though.  You would have to do without breathing.   There would be no oxygen in the atmosphere.  The nitrogen and carbon dioxide would suffocate you in a minute.   But other than that it would be nice.  A blue-gray lifeless Earth waiting for another random event. 

I should clarify something.  Random is a tricky word.   What appears random is actually subject to the laws of physics and chemistry.   There may be true randomness at the quantum level.  Physicists can debate that.    What appear to be random events often are events beyond our ability to calculate or predict.    That does not mean things happen without rules.

Mix natural laws, the energy of the cosmos, and billions of years and what emerges is beyond imagination or prediction.   You couldn’t start with the Big Bang and predict Miley Cyrus.  Nonetheless Miley Cyrus, you, me and the Super Bowl all eventually emerged after 13.7 billion years of natural law, energy, and time.   We might think of it as random, but it is not really random, it is just not pre-planned or designed. 

That amazing, unplanned, unintentional, non-designed, evolutionary unfolding is an awe-inspiring, sacred story.   It can be for those who ponder it, deeply spiritual.   In a previous sermon I called it the spirituality of randomness because it feels like that, but it is really the spirituality of natural law acting on matter and energy over time.    In that spirit Robert Hazen in his book, The Story of Earth, quipped: 

“That’s why we say if God created life, she’s smart enough to use evolution.”  P. 147

Christians have given great weight and authority to the Bible.  It has contained the story of the universe and the meaning of humankind and has provided that for two thousand years.    Some of us, who with deep appreciation for the Bible and who continue to study its human wisdom, realize that the most sacred story of life is not found in texts but in rocks.    

I personally couldn’t tell you the difference between one rock and another.   I find myself amazed when I read Hazen’s book about how scientists are able to date rocks and discover their chemical composition and through that tell us Earth’s story.    It is of course not a finished story.   They are debating and discovering new things by the moment.    We don’t have to be scientists to appreciate the story, although the more we learn, the more we can be amazed.    Similarly, you don’t have to know Hebrew and Greek and the nuances of textual criticism to appreciate the narrative of the Bible.  The more you do know, the more interesting it becomes.   The point is you don’t have to be biblical scholars to appreciate the narrative of the Bible.  You don’t have to be geologists or biologists to appreciate the narrative of Earth and the evolution of life.   

I am proposing that the story of Earth and the story of the evolution of life be given canonical status in the life of the church.  It is a Sacred Story, a Holy Word.   As preachers have waved their bibles and admonished you to read God’s Word daily, this preacher says, yes read your bible, critically, but give at least equal time to the story of Earth, our home, and to our cousins, the flying ones, the finned ones, and the four-legged ones, and the to trees, plants, and fungi, with whom we all share a common ancestor, an Adam and Eve, if you like.    The story of Earth and of the evolution of life on Earth is our soul story, our spiritual story, our God story.

Last time I left you on a rock, on a beach on a blue and gray Earth.  No oxygen in the atmosphere, no plants, fish, birds, bugs, no life whatsoever in land, sky, or sea.   That was Earth on its 500 millionth birthday, about four billion years ago.    A lot has happened since then.

Scientists don’t know when life evolved or how, but the question of the origin of life of Earth is a big one and is one that is being addressed from a number of different angles.  One of the challenges is to make a definition for life.    NASA has projects to explore candidates within our own solar system for signs of life.   You have to have some kind of definition before you know you found it.  

Gerry Joyce of the Scripps Research Insititute created this definition for NASA: 

“Life is a self-sustaining system capable of incorporating novelty and undergoing Darwinian evolution.”

Life copies itself and evolves.    Life makes stuff (metabolism) and transfers information on how to make stuff (genetics) from one generation to the next.  

Earth had the stuff of life.  It had energy from the sun and from below the crust.  It had the chemistry of life, all the elements of the periodic table, and natural law set the reactions in motion.   Earth produced lipids, sugars, and amino acids, the building blocks of life, but it took a lot of time, and countless, countless chemical reactions before that first self-replicating microbe said, “Hear me roar.”

Somewhere between 4.4 billion years ago and 3.5 billion years ago this happened.  Whether you go with the earlier number or the later number depends on whether you think life can happen more commonly or is more rare.    We don’t know if life is common or rare in the universe.  So far, we have only found it here.   Of course, we have not been able to look that extensively, yet. 

How might it have happened?   In 1953 Stanley Miller and Harold Urey did an experiment with an electric spark simulating lightning and hot water and simple gases simulating Earth’s early oceans and the atmosphere.   This experiment produced a gooey organic sludge.   Eureka!  Not life, but the building blocks of life. This was pretty exciting and this became the primordial soup theory. 

Since then, there have been alternate theories.   One is that life emerged deep beneath the ocean where volcanic eruptions have created these “deep-sea black smokers.”   Robert Hazen and his colleagues created an experiment to mimic this deep sea pressurized and heated volcanic zone that interacted with mineral surfaces.  They, like Miller also produced amino acids, lipids, and other building blocks.   

The building blocks of life are not life.  It takes natural laws, energy, and time, lots of time and lots of reactions to get to the point at what we call life emerged.   This is far too complex for a laboratory. Robert Hazen writes:

On its own, no such natural experiment with minerals and molecules is likely to have generated life.  But take countless trillions of trillions of trillions of mineral surfaces, each bathed in molecule-rich organic broth, and repeat those tiny natural experiments over and over for hundreds of millions of years.  Earth must have eventually tested virtually every combination of small molecules somewhere, sometime.  The tiny  fraction of all those molecular combinations that wound up displaying easier self—assembly, or developed a stronger binding to mineral surfaces, or enjoyed greater stability under the high temperatures and pressures, survived, possibly to grow, possibly to learn new tricks.  P. 141.

Eventually a collection of molecules started copying itself.   Evolution is about variation and selection.  Life systems are able to evolve because they produce a variety of configurations and some of those are more likely to survive than others.    Molecules that copied ate the other guys and survived.

On Earth’s one billionth birthday, life had established a hold.    The first living cell that would copy itself and would have produced brown and purple scum on the coast of continents and maybe some green slime along the equator, we could call Adam and Eve, our fist living ancestors.   That is our spiritual and sacred origin story. 

But it would take another 1.5 billion years for life to learn a new trick, that is to exhale. 

The Great Oxidation Event in which the green slime through oxygen-producing photosynthesis would forever change Earth’s surface.    On Earth’s 2.5 billionth birthday, Earth changed its color to rust as this oxygen interacted with iron.    Earth might have appeared the color of Mars with blue oceans and rust colored continents.   The atmosphere at this time might have one percent oxygen, not enough for us to breathe.  

It would take at least another billion years for the next interesting event.   

Close to Earth’s four billionth birthday, the climate started to change.   Previous to this time, the climate was fairly stable, and life in its microbial form is hanging on. But about 750 million years ago, the big continent begins to break up, making more coastal lines where the algae is able to flourish producing more oxygen.   The biomass and the gases it releases changes the climate.   The planet changed significantly and rapidly from snowball to hothouse and back again.    For a time, there was snowball Earth in which ice a mile deep covered Earth from pole to equator.    

Earth from outer space over its history would have changed from black with red volcanic stripes in the hadean period, to a blue ocean, to blue and gray when the continents first emerged all within the first five hundred million years.  Over the next 3 billion years  it wouldn’t have appeared to have changed much in appearance until the Great Oxidation Event and the eventual rust color of about 2 billion years ago.   Then the rollicking climate changes from hot house to snowball would have greeted the alien visitor with a white ice colored globe.

This process of cooling and heating due to changes in greenhouse gases eventually led to an increase in oxygen in the atmosphere around 650 million years ago.    This paved the way for the first animals and plants.    The first multi-cellular organism appears in the fossil record about 630 million years ago just after the second global snowball melted.   

From 580 million years ago, we have fossils of soft-bodied animals, ancestors of jellyfish and worms.    If life began 3.5 to 4 billion years ago, it took 3 billion more years to get to worms or worm-like guys and dolls.   It is only then that we could travel back in time with our beach towel and breathe the air.   

It was the rapidly changing feedback loop of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere that led to the expansion of life on Earth.   Now we are entering another period of climate change when again positive feedback loops are changing the climate.   Greenhouse gases such as Carbon Dioxide and Methane enter the atmosphere causing increased melting of glaciers.  Those glaciers reflect the Sun’s light.  Without them more of the Sun’s energy is absorbed, raising sea levels, melting more glaciers, releasing more methane.   As we burn fossil fuels and clear cut our forests we release more Carbon Dioxide into the atmosphere and contribute to this feedback loop.    

We ought to consider our Sacred Story.  We ought to learn the lessons of Earth’s story.   The story of Earth is the story of Life interacting with land, sea and air.   Life shaped Earth as Earth shaped Life.   We change it as it changes us.  It is ironic that climate change led to Life as we know it, from single-celled critters to Miley Cyrus and the Superbowl.   It is also true that climate change could end Life as we know it. 

That is human life.  Of course, Earth will spin.   We don’t need to save Earth. Because of natural laws acting on energy and matter over time, whatever life remains after humans have left their mark will evolve along with the Earth itself.   Those hardy little microbes, that brownish purple scum could be Life’s sole representatives again as they had been for three billion years.  

We, on the other hand, are a fragile species.   I vote for humans.  I like humans.  We are the consciousness of the universe able to tell its story, to live, to laugh, to make love.  I want us to be around for awhile.

We are in relationship with Earth and its climate.  It is an intimate relationship.   It is a spiritual relationship.    I can think of no relationship more spiritual or more worthy of our concern. 

We might want to learn Earth’s story to understand our place in it, and perhaps be inspired, to the degree that we have the power, to save ourselves.


Sunday, January 19, 2014

Walking the Talk (MLK 1/19/14)

Walking the Talk
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

January 19, 2014
Martin Luther King

Jesus said…
As you know, we once were told, “An eye for an eye” and “A tooth for a tooth.”  But I tell you:  Don’t react violently against the one who is evil:  when someone slaps you on the right cheek, turn the other as well.  If someone is determined to sue you for your shirt, let that person have your coat along with it.  Further, when anyone conscripts you for one mile, go along an extra mile.  Give to the one who begs from you; and don’t turn away from the one who tries to borrow from you.

As you know, we once were told, “You are to love your neighbor” and “You are to hate your enemy.”  But I tell you:  Love your enemies and pray for your persecutors.  You’ll then become children of your Father in the heavens.  God causes the sun to rise on both the bad and the good, and sends rain on both the just and the unjust.  Tell me, if you love those who love you, why should you be commended for that?  Even the toll collectors do as much, don’t they?  And if you greet only your friends, what have you done that is exceptional?  Even the pagans do as much, don’t they?  To sum up, you are to be as liberal in your love as your heavenly Father is.
Matthew 5:38-48

Another way that you love your enemy is this: When the opportunity presents itself for you to defeat your enemy, that is the time which you must not do it. There will come a time, in many instances, when the person who hates you most, the person who has misused you most, the person who has gossiped about you most, the person who has spread false rumors about you most, there will come a time when you will have an opportunity to defeat that person. It might be in terms of a recommendation for a job; it might be in terms of helping that person to make some move in life. That’s the time you must do it. That is the meaning of love. In the final analysis, love is not this sentimental something that we talk about. It’s not merely an emotional something. Love is creative, understanding goodwill for all men. It is the refusal to defeat any individual. When you rise to the level of love, of its great beauty and power, you seek only to defeat evil systems. Individuals who happen to be caught up in that system, you love, but you seek to defeat the system.
Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr
From “Loving Your Enemies” a sermon delivered at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church Montgomery, Alabama, November 17, 1957.

Evil may so shape events that Caesar will occupy a palace and Christ a cross, but that same Christ arose and split history into A.D. and B.C., so that even the life of Caesar must be dated by his name. Yes, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” There is something in the universe which justifies William Cullen Bryant in saying, “Truth crushed to earth will rise again.”
--Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Article in The Gospel Messenger, 1958.

“The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”   That powerful statement of hope has been attributed to Martin Luther King.   But when King said it he was quoting someone else.   That someone else was Rev. Theodore Parker. 

Theodore Parker was a Unitarian minister.   He was a Transcendentalist in the school of thought of Ralph Waldo Emerson.   A graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Divinity School, he embraced higher criticism of the Bible.   He dismissed orthodox Christianity including the Trinity and the divinity of Christ.  He rejected the miracles, realized the Bible was filled with errors, and he thought that religion should be located in personal experience. 

He believed in the immorality of the soul.  He was a theist.   He believed that God was known through personal experience and intuition.  He was also a universalist.   He believed that God would lose no one.  He said that Calvinist Theology was “cruel and unreasonable.”   Most pulpits in Boston would not let him preach.  They didn’t consider him a Christian and his views lost him many friends.  

Nevertheless he found his voice and a place to share it.  In 1845 his supporters formed the Congregational Society of Boston and installed Parker as minister.  His congregation included such notables as Louisa May Alcott, William Lloyd Garrison, Julia Ward Howe, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.  It grew to 7000.  He died at the age of fifty from Tuberculosis just before the beginning of the Civil War. 

Parker was involved in almost every reform movement you could name.    An early biographer of Parker’s provided a list:  "peace, temperance, education, the condition of women, penal legislation, prison discipline, the moral and mental destitution of the rich, [and] the physical destitution of the poor."  He denounced the Mexican War and urged his fellow Bostonians to protest the war.   

No reform issue was more pressing for him than the abolition of slavery.   He urged people to violate the Fugitive Slave Law passed in 1850 that required the return of escaped slaves to their owners.  Many fugitive slaves were part of his congregation. He hid slaves in his own home.   He walked the talk.  He supported abolitionist John Brown who many had considered a terrorist.  He supplied money for munitions to the free states in the battle for Kansas.   

By the time he died in 1860 the abolition of slavery was in no way assured.   Yet he held on to hope and wrote:

"I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice."

That is the original quote.   Over one hundred years later when our nation seethed with inequality and hatred, when African-Americans faced daily humiliation and injustice in a violent, segregated society, 100 years after a Civil War that was fought over slavery, another preacher, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. reframed Rev. Theodore Parker’s hope in one simple sentence:

“The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”

Martin Luther King never thought the civil rights movement was about him.  He never pretended to have started it or to have birthed the theology that instructed it, or created the rhetoric that inspired it.    King knew and stated that he stood on the shoulders of those before him.   His speeches and sermons are filled with the wisdom of the ages.    Much of that wisdom came from the Bible.  Much of it came from thinkers and activists from a wide variety of traditions, including Theodore Parker.

I think King would be ambivalent about a national holiday that bears his name.   He would be in favor of a day, one day better than none, that calls our focus and attention to the struggle, the ongoing struggle for dignity, for racial equality, for nonviolent resistance to all forms of oppression, for the demolition of the military industrial complex, and for the reorienting of priorities toward the poorest of our citizens as opposed to the welfare of the wealthiest corporate elite.   

That is a lot to do in one day.

King might be in favor of at least one day of the 365 devoted to the incarnation of love.   This is not a sentimental love or an ivory tower theological love.   This is a feet on the street love, a pen to paper or finger to keyboard love, a chained to a bulldozer love, a fingerprinted and mugshot-framed love.   This is a standing up to bullets and bullies love.  This is a love that won’t take “sorry, this is just the way it is” for an answer.  

This is a love that knows the mocking and derision by those in power.    Love knows that arrogant smirk.  Love knows and feels the rage of injustice and Love knows the desire to lash out, to return evil with evil.   Love knows it.  Love feels it. Love feels the pain of rejection and humiliation.   Love hears the name-calling. Love understands that hopeless, small feeling.   Love knows that self-doubt.   Love feels the burn of shame. 

Love knows something else.  Love knows something far more powerful than the so-called powerful.    Love knows that it will last at the end of things.   Love knows as Martin Luther King put it that the choice is not between violence and non-violence.  The choice is between violence and non-existence.  Love knows that if the human species, this evolutionary experiment, is to survive for even another century it will only be because of Love.    Love is the energy of gut-wrenching rage at injustice transformed into actions of justice and reconciliation.  It is not Love unless and until it includes the enemy.     Love is a miracle.  Love is the miracle of the desire, in fact, even the justice for revenge, melted down and reshaped into a new creation.      

Martin Luther King didn’t invent this love.  He did bear witness to it.   But he wasn’t the only one by any means.   Of course.   He would be ambivalent to have his face, his name, and his birthday be the focus of something that is so much larger than him.    Yes, we need to know the history of the Civil Rights movement in the United States.   We need to know the events, and the dates, and people and places and to teach them to our children.   But this history is much more than what happened from 1954 to 1968.   We need to know that we are not today recollecting a series of past events.   This history is an ongoing story.   It is the ongoing witness and practice of scarred Love.

Love is not pretty.  It is not a red Valentine’s Day heart with a naked Cupid shooting his arrow.  Love is not a sentimental wish on a Hallmark Card.   Love is not soft music and a white light of escape.  Love is not a saccharine niceness that says, “Bless your heart” to your face then gossips behind your back.    Love is not a big church sign that says, “Everyone is welcome.”  Then when you go in you learn the unwritten rule.    You are welcome unless you are Black or Gay or welcome only if you are Theologically Correct or Politically Connected or Dressed for Success or whatever else you are not.    Love is none of that phony stuff.  

Love is a scar.     The central symbol of Love in the Christian tradition is the crucified Christ.   Despite many of its misrepresentations, it is the most powerful symbol I know of scarred Love.     The crucified and risen Christ symbolizes the truth of pain, injustice, hatred, violence, and humiliation, transformed into hope, dignity, new life, renewed relationships, joy, and possibility.    The image of the risen Christ bearing the scars of the cross is not there to beat up on us for our sins or to be morbid.    It shows us that the deepest pain and humiliation and hopelessness is not beyond hope.    Love is larger than any one life.

Scarred Love is seen anytime a person is able to take their pain and allow it to be transformed into a gift.    It is counter-intuitive.  You can’t tell people to do it.  It is not a commandment.   It is only Love when it is freely entered.  When a person could by all means keep and hold the pain and anger for a lifetime and by all rights never would be blamed for doing so, nevertheless, when she or he chooses and allows that pain and mistreatment to become something else, something reconciling, that is scarred Love. 

Emmett Till was a fourteen year-old boy.  He lived up north in Chicago and was visiting his cousins in Money, Mississippi.  The year was 1955.  He didn’t know the ways of the South and the unwritten rules that had been in place for generations. He didn’t know that his place as an African-American was to be silent.  He didn’t know about the importance of downcast eyes and moving to the side when a white person approached.    

He didn’t know it was more than a joke one day in a drugstore to act on a dare and talk fresh to a white woman.    “Bye Baby” he said to her on his way outside.   I am sure he thought that at most he would receive a stern reprimand for speaking disrespectfully to an adult.   

He had no idea that two white men would come to his uncle’s house, to the home of Mose Wright, and demand at gunpoint that he come with them for a ride.  He had no idea that getting in the car with them would be the last ride he would ever take.  

When they found his body at the bottom of the Tallahatchie River, scarred, beaten, and shot through the head, it was so disfigured that he was unrecognizable save for his ring.   In fact, one of the lame arguments of the defense was that his body was so disfigured it couldn’t be proved that it was Emmett Till.  

His mother, Mamie Till, decided to have an open casket funeral.   Photos were taken of his body in the coffin and they appeared in Jet Magazine.  She wanted the world to see what they had done to her boy.   

At the trial an all-white jury found the defendants not guilty. Emmett’s mother, Mamie Till, said she hadn’t expected anything different.    It was the way it was in 1955 in Mississippi.   In 1956, protected by double jeopardy, in a magazine article, the two white men who had been found not guilty, admitted to killing Emmett Till.

But Mamie Till said something else on national television.  She said that while nothing could be done for her baby that maybe if the world knew and if change could come, her boy wouldn’t have died in vain.   The murder of Emmett Till, and the injustice of the trial was another spark for the civil rights movement.     She travelled the country telling the story of her boy.   The story of scarred Love.

Her pain and the scarred body of her son could have been the end of that family’s story.   No one would or could blame her for that.   It could have been a quiet funeral.  She could have stayed away from the cameras.  She could have in her grief refused talk about her son, refused the hostile questions asked by the white press.    She didn’t.  You couldn’t command her to do what she did.  You couldn’t expect her to do what she did.  

She knew that somehow through her pain, through the pain of her son that she could only imagine as a mother imagines he experienced, day after day in her grief, that she had to make his life and his death not be in vain.   For her sake.    For his.    Her courage became a gift for our country.     

Scarred love is not sentimental.  It is longer and larger than any one life, but it knows every life.   Love requires the greatest of courage.  Love is the power to tell our experience, to show our scars, and to trust that the scars are not the last word but an entrance to the eternal word. 

It is a word that rings true and will ring true.   In the midst of all the pain, love will endure. 

The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.


Sunday, January 12, 2014

Geogenesis: Earth Comes Into Being (1/12/14)

Geogenesis:  The Coming Into Being of Earth
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

January 12, 2014

To become aware of the sacramental nature of the cosmos;
to be open to the sacramental possibilities of each moment;
to see the face of Christ in every person;
these things are not novel,
but their rediscovery is the beginning of our health.
Ron Ferguson

Our Great Story continues with the formation of our solar system 4.567 billion years ago.    Two books are helping me tell this story.  The first is Lloyd Geering’s,From the Big Bang to God:  Our Awe-Inspiring Journey of Evolution.  The second is Robert HazenThe Story of Earth:  The First 4.5 Billion Years, From Stardust to Living Planet.  Robert Hazen is also featured in the Great Courses series, The Origin and Evolution of Earth:  From the Big Bang to the Future of Human Existence.  

The  story of the evolution of the Universe and Earth is a pattern of long, long periods of nothing seeming to happen, 100s of millions of years, billions of years even, followed by an event that lasts a few seconds or a day that changes everything.    The formation of the moon is such an event.   

This leads to a philosophical puzzle.  It really is against all odds that we exist.   Had any of these random events been slightly different, such as the formation of the moon, the beginnings of life, and the evolution of life wouldn’t have happened, or at least happened the way it did.   

But that is true with any history, isn’t it?   You look back at your own life and think of the small events that could have gone many directions, but here you are.   You wouldn’t be here as you are if it weren’t for some decision or event or series of decisions or events.   We might think that it is planned and designed and orchestrated.  Theologians even come up with a theological word, providence, to explain it.    It must have been planned.   Perhaps.  

It is also the case that we look back to our individual lives or back to the origins of life on Earth from the vantage point of what we have become.    There is no other vantage point.   Had my mother not met my father or had she married the person who had courted her before him, someone else would be in this pulpit today.    That person might be telling you this morning about the divine hand of providence that led him or her to Elizabethton. 

Instead of a spirituality of providence I am beginning to develop a spirituality of randomness.    From this perspective, I am aware that it is better to be lucky than skilled.   Because of that I cannot ultimately credit myself for my life.   I didn’t do anything to earn or get this life.  It is pretty good.  My life could have gone and still can go quite differently.   If there is a skill to develop it would be adaptability.  Nothing is permanent.  Everything is change and random change at that.   

We can be unhappy with change.   We can wish things were like they were or even try to resist change, but that is a losing cause.    It easily results in leaving one sad, afraid, and bitter.  The spirituality of randomness invites me to be open to what is. To take notes.  Those notes include telling of the changes I see and my experience of these changes.  This is my life.  This is what happened.  I lived it.   I am living it still. The spirituality of randomness invites me to see that others are in the same situation.  We are all free-floating electrons looking for a positive charge.    A little compassion is in order.

About 4.6 billion years ago a cloud of gas and dust in the suburbs of the Milky Way hovered and hung out.  Who knows for how many billions of years it had been doing that.   This particular cloud was on a plane, a hot spinning disc.    Some random event, some hurtling ball of energy and vibration excited the hydrogen in this dust cloud and it began to shape itself.     Gravity spoke up and said, “I have something to do.”  It gathered this gas and dust into a ball, dense, massive, and hot.   Hot, massive and pressurized enough to ignite fusion reactions.   Our sun was born.  

Solar wind resulted sending out the remaining material in the gas cloud.   Gravity kept it from going out into space and instead put it into orbit around the sun.  The sun contains almost all the mass of the solar system.   99.9% of the solar system’s mass is concentrated in the sun.   All the rest, the 0.1% of the mass of gas dust and debris began to collide and form asteroids and comets and ultimately planets orbiting the sun.    

In our system we have four rock planets and four gas planets.  Mercury is a hot little rock closest to the sun.  Venus is next.  It is hot as well.  Surface temperatures are about 900 degrees.   It might have had small oceans of water but now the water appears to have boiled away.  Carbon dioxide sealed in the sun’s energy and its atmosphere today is the result of runaway greenhouse gases.  This might be an object lesson for Earthlings. 

The third rock from the sun is Earth of course.  Mars is the fourth planet and the last of the rockies.   It is a tenth of the size of Earth but most Earth-like.   Like Earth, Mars has an atmosphere and a lot of water.   Its gravity is weak compared to Earth so it had a hard time holding the atmosphere.   Underground there may be warm and wet reservoirs that harbor some life. 

The asteroid belt is next followed by the huge gas planets.   

Jupiter is the largest.  Jupiter had hopes of being a star.   As it is with those who would want to be a star, many are called but few are chosen.    Jupiter wasn’t large enough or hot enough even as it has its own system of moons orbiting it like a mini-solar system.    Astronomers note that two of three stars we see in the sky are binaries, that is two stars close together.    Had the angular momentum of our system been different, Jupiter might have been bigger and hotter and he could have been that second star.   

It wasn’t to be and that is good for us.   Life might have evolved from a planet going around a binary star, and it could exist somewhere else but it would be tricky with the competing gravitational pulls.   As it is, our sun is a nice size.  Not too big to burn out too fast, not too small not to provide enough energy for life.    Our sun is about half way through its life cycle.    A long enough life for life.

Beyond Jupiter is Saturn with its frozen ice rings and then Uranus and Neptune. They all have their own moons.   Saturn has two dozen moons, one of them, Titan, appears to have an atmosphere with organic compounds.   It is a good place to explore for some signs of life. 

Back to Earth.  

This solar dust cloud might have existed for billions of years and in a relatively short period our sun ignites swallowing up 99.9% of the dust cloud’s mass and sends out rocks and gas through a violent solar wind.    Thanks to gravity this stuff orbits the sun and crashes and collects into planets.   One of these planets is Earth.

Earth is formed from this crashing debris.    Earth is unique in that it has a big moon.   How did we get the moon?   There have been a number of theories.  One is that the moon was formed by Earth’s leftovers.  Another is that the moon was captured by Earth’s gravity.  Another theory proposed by Charles Darwin’s son, George Darwin, is that the moon was once part of Earth and broke away.  

The current theory within the last thirty years has the complicated scientific name, The Big Thwack.   About 50 million years after the formation of the solar system, Earth is black.  It has red streaks of volcanic magma.  It is not a hospitable place.   There is another smaller but nevertheless large competitor for Earth’s orbit space.  The orbit is not big enough for the likes of competition.    Earth’s competitor we’ll name Theia for the Titan goddess who gave birth to the moon. 

Theia crashes into Earth.  Theia is obliterated.  The explosion of impact sends a combination of Earth’s stuff and Theia’s stuff out in to Earth’s orbit.   Earth’s gravity gathers this stuff and eventually it becomes the moon.  

This brand new moon is close to Earth about 15,000 miles.   Earth rotates fast on its axis.  Instead of 24 hours each day is five hours.   Over the course of 4.5 billion years the moon has gradually moved away from Earth.  Today the moon is about 239,000 miles from Earth.    They have done measurements since the 1970s and found the moon is moving away from Earth about an inch and a half a year.    It doesn’t sound like much but over the course of 4.5 billion years, it eventually gets there. 

As the moon moves further away it causes Earth to spin more slowly.    Like a skater who brings her arms in to spin faster and slows the spin by bringing her arms out, so the moon by moving further and further away slows the spin of Earth.    The moon always faces us as she orbits us.  Earth and moon always look lovingly into one another’s eyes.   Isn't science romantic?

Another result of the impact of Theia on Earth was to tilt Earth on its axis.  It spins about 23 degrees off center.   Which is convenient for the change in seasons we enjoy today.   The Big Thwack theory explains best the relative compositions of Earth and moon, the rotation of Earth, the 23 degree angle and the presence of the moon itself. It didn’t have to happen this way.    Had Theia thwacked Earth at a different angle things would have turned out differently.  

If you were to land on Earth at that time, you wouldn’t last long.   Earth at this time is thousands of degrees at the surface.   From space it would look black because of the basalt crust with red stripes of volcanic magma.   All the time, Earth is being pelted by meteorites.  The moon from Earth would look huge as it is only 15,000 miles away.  It would take up a vast portion of the sky.     It would be hot and volcanic too.

Another couple of hundred million years pass.  See how that goes?   Long periods of time, then an event like The Big Thwack that change everything, then long periods of time.     Earth’s infancy is really a mystery.   It is theoretical.   No rocks or minerals survive from that Hadean time.   The word Hadean comes from the words Hades, that is hot. 

After this period Earth cooled and the oceans began to form.   Enter water.

Water is one of the most abundant chemicals in the cosmos.    Oceans cover 71% of earth’s surface today.    At some early point water covered the whole surface of Earth.  Earth was a beautiful blue ball.    Water has some important and unique properties.  It dissolves things.   It freezes weirdly, from top to bottom as opposed to other liquids.  Its solid form, ice, is less dense than its liquid form.  So it floats. This serves to protect what is underneath the layer of ice.   Water has a high surface tension allowing it to form drops rather than remain a gaseous mist.   

On Earth we know of no life whatsoever that does not require water.  Some living things don’t appear to require much, but all living things need water.    When theKepler telescope set its eyes on one region in the galaxy it was looking for planets that would be in the “Goldilocks” zone.   That is a temperature zone that would allow for the possibility of liquid water.   

One hundred million years or more following The Big Thwack, not that long in deep time, Earth was a blue ball of water with an ocean a mile deep and a few volcanoes poking above the waves. 

At around that time enter granite, the foundation stone of the continents.   How did Earth move from black basalt to granite continents?    It is fairly recently that the concept of plate tectonics has been accepted.   According to Robert Hazen the maxim is this: 

Granite floats, basalt sinks:  that’s the key to the origins of the continents.”  P. 124.

Volcanoes blow up cinders and ash on to the surface that forms granite islands that are less dense than the basalt.  These granite islands form and link and actually shift and move, thus the origin of the popular song by Carole King, “I Feel the Earth Move Under My Feet.” 

You can put together the puzzle pieces of the most recent continental shifts, if you allow for “recent” to be 300 million years.    If you look at a globe you can see how Africa and South America were once one.   They spooned together.    But all of the continents at one time were one.    Species of living things that existed in that time before the drift have commonalities on the various continents.    That isn’t even the beginning.  That is 300 million years ago only.  We are still at four billion years ago.   Over the course of our four billion year history the floating islands of granite come together and separate. 

If you were able to time travel to 500 million years after The Big Thwack, to about four billion years ago, you would visit a blue and gray Earth.   You could bring your towel and lie on a beach.   Nothing green.  No trees, no grass, no fishies.   It would be quite beautiful though.  You would have to do without breathing.   There would be no oxygen in the atmosphere.  The nitrogen and carbon dioxide would suffocate you in a minute.   But other than that it would be nice.  A blue-gray lifeless Earth waiting for another random event.