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In its violent early years, Earth was a molten hellscape that ejected the Moon after a fiery collision with another protoplanet, scientists now suspect. Later, it transformed from a watery surface into a giant snowball that almost killed all life.
Then a super typhoon with 300 foot high waves hit the newly thawed sea. But that’s nothing compared to the celestial turbulence and fireworks of the 9 billion years before our planet was born.
Science and historical documentarian Dan Levitt’s upcoming book, “What Got Inside You: The Story of Your Body’s Atoms, From the Big Bang to Last Night’s Dinner,” evokes a series of striking and powerful images exploring how our cells, elements, atoms and subatomic particles all found their way into our brains and bones and bodies. The book comes out on January 24.
“We now know that the origin of the universe, the formation of the elements in stars, the formation of the solar system and Earth, and the early history of our planet were incredibly turbulent,” Levitt told CNN.
Almost incomprehensible explosions, collisions and temperatures are essential to life.
A disturbance in Jupiter’s orbit, for example, could have sent a hail of asteroids to Earth, seeding the planet with water in the process. And molten iron formed the core of the earth A magnetic field that shields us from cosmic rays.
“A lot of things happened that could have gone the other way and we wouldn’t be here in this case,” Levitt said.
Reconstructing the epic gradual journey of our atoms over billions of years, he said, fills him with awe and gratitude.
“Sometimes when I look at people I think, ‘Wow, you’re incredible creatures and our atoms all share the same deep history going back to the Big Bang,'” he said. “He hopes readers will recognize that even the simplest cell is incredibly complex and highly revered. And so are all people.”
Our bodies are contained 60 or more elements, including streams of hydrogen unleashed after the Big Bang and calcium formed by dying stars known as red giants. As Levitt collected evidence for how they and the more complex organic molecules made their way to us, he weaved through the tumultuous history of the scientific process.
He didn’t initially equate turmoil in the universe with upheavals in the scientific world, but that certainly came with the territory. “Many scientific certainties have been thrown out since our grandparents were alive,” he said. “That’s part of the fun of the book.”
After Levitt finished his first draft, he realized with astonishment that part of the scientific confusion was due to persistent biases of various kinds. “I wanted to get into the heads of scientists who made great discoveries — to see their breakthroughs as they did them and understand how they were received at the time,” he said. “Each time, I’ve been surprised that the initial reaction to novel theories is skepticism and dismissal.”
Throughout the book, he points out six recurring mental traps that have blinded even the most intelligent minds, such as “it’s too weird to be true” or “if our current tools don’t detect it, it doesn’t exist.”
Albert Einstein initially hated the strange idea of an expanding universe, for example, but he had to be persuaded over time. Georges LemaîtreA little-known but dogmatic Belgian priest and cosmologist. Stanley Miller, the “father of prebiotic chemistry” who brilliantly simulated Earth’s early stages in glass jars, was a fierce opponent of the hypothesis that life might have evolved in the deep ocean, fueled by mineral-rich enzymes and super-heated vents. And so on.
“The history of science is littered with grandiose promises by elder statesmen that are quickly broken,” Levitt writes in his book. Fortunately for us, the history of science is littered with radicals and freethinkers who were happy to poke holes in those pronouncements.
Levitt described how many advances were made by researchers who did not receive due credit for their contributions. “I’m drawn to unsung heroes with dramatic stories that people have never heard of,” he said. “So I was happy that many of the interesting stories in the book turned out to be about people I didn’t know.”
They are scientists like the Austrian researcher Marietta Blue, who helped physicists see some of the first signs of subatomic particles; Dutch physician and philosopher Jan Ingenhousz, who discovered that sunlight leaves can produce oxygen through photosynthesis; and chemist Rosalind FranklinHe was instrumental in developing the three-dimensional structure of DNA.
Wonders of the Universe
The lightning spark of new ideas often struck independently around the world. To his surprise, Levitt found that many scientists had developed plausible scenarios for how the building blocks of life could have begun to assemble.
“Our universe is full of organic molecules — many of which are precursors to the molecules we’ve created,” he said. “So I alternate between thinking that life like us is highly improbable and thinking that there must be life in many places in the universe.”
Nothing about our own journey from the Big Bang was straightforward.
“If you try to imagine how life evolved from the first organic molecules, it must have been a herky-jerky process full of twisty paths and failures,” Levitt said. “Most of them must have gone somewhere. But evolution has a way of creating winners from countless trials over long periods of time.”
Nature also has a way of recycling building blocks to create new life. A nuclear physicist name Paul Abersold “We replace half of our carbon atoms every two months, and a full 98 percent of all our atoms each year,” Levitt writes.
Like a house that is constantly being renovated, we are always changing and replacing old parts with new ones: our water, proteins and cells, most of which are replaced every decade.
Eventually, our own cells will grow silently, but their parts will reassemble into other life forms. “Although we may die, our atoms do not,” Levitt writes. “They swirl in a chemical delight through life, soil, oceans and skies.”
Like the death of stars, in other words, our own destruction opens up another significant world of possibility.