There is a certain look from religious people as they try to imagine the world of an atheist - a world without belief in their god - their awe, their wonder, their glory. They do not understand how we can live in a universe devoid of magic and superstition, and at times feel pity for those of us who believe only in scientific discovery and the wonder of the natural universe. Their pity is unwarranted, because ... we are stardust
In the beginning all was chaos; without form; without shape; without direction - a celestial fog of bits of matter, lost in a timeless expanse of space . Protons, neutrons, and electrons drifted through total darkness and in total darkness found each other and were compelled to begin a universal dance that would be repeated over and over. These small bits formed the first atoms - the seeds of all things; the stardust that would shape a universe. The atoms’ small gravity drew them together to form the first molecules of carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, hydrogen ... microscopic structures that would form the building blocks of the universe. As they collected each other, heat began to form and - from that heat - time began to creep.
Over billions of years, the small collisions and tugs of minute gravity began to draw this stardust into a grand celestial waltz as natural as the dance of the first atoms - circling, forming eddies, flowing, thickening. Soon, large clusters in the centre of the eddies attracted more and more molecules and compressed itself to form a solid frozen ball with a gravity well that lighter clusters orbited around in the form of dust and gas, repeating the atomic waltz to form the crucible of galaxies and within those, individual solar systems. Order was forming out of the chaos; the universe began to resolve in form and shape and motion.
As the centres of the clusters attracted more and more mass, their internal pressure and heat grew and time accelerated. These centres grew more dense and their gravity compressed them further and reached out to stabilized the eddies of matter that swirled around the centres until they too collapsed to form the planets.
Then something wondrous happened; the compression-generated heat within the great masses at the centre of each solar system reached a critical point and the once frozen balls of matter ignited and sent forth a blast of energy that stripped the atmospheres from the nearer planets and warmed those at mid distance. This was the birth of light, and over millennia was repeated in a cascade across the universe, and that light held within it an infinite rainbow of colour.
Circling each new sun out past its planets in the farthest reaches of its solar maelstrom, frozen flakes of chemical compounds clustered and formed huge ice balls that fell into the gravity well, and as the new suns warmed them and blasted them with photons, the frozen gasses began to boil and mix as the comet drew perilously close, to calve and break into parts on its violent trip around the sun. Some of the boiling mixtures formed a rudimentary long molecule of deoxyribonucleic acid, which was delivered to the planets as the comet’s broken parts crashed into their surfaces and reshaped their landscapes. Strings of this DNA withered and died on rocky planets and joined the soup of gas giants, but on planets with liquid water it thrived and began its evolution.
DNA strands found each other and became longer and more complex, and over time they created single cell rudimentary creatures that at first drifted on the tides of the water worlds, then evolved to have the ability to move on their own.
The great comets continued to grow in the outer reaches and continued to fall into the gravity well and continued to impact the planets. These massive collisions changed the planets, adding to the chemical mix, reshaping the land, and sometimes creating new chaos. These wet planets would never know calm, but the DNA of the small creatures allowed them to evolve to survive in their ever-changing environment. Some evolved in place to become algae and later plants, others evolved to swim, to reproduce, to forage and hunt, and to change their local environment to suit their needs.
The branches that grew from the original DNA carried in a comet’s frozen core, spread and life became diverse. Some branches died by either falling behind in their evolutionary journey or were obliterated through disaster, but those that survived grew stronger and more complex.
As the algae and plants left the water, borne on waves pulled by an orbiting moon’s gravity, they clung to rocks and soils and burrowed their roots deep. Creatures who fed on these plants followed and evolved to be able to move on land, at first only to visit but eventually inhabit.
Life flourished on these water worlds, and flourishing, evolved and diversified. These life forms faced many challenges; ice ages; floods; fires; extinctions caused by more comet strikes, yet DNA survived and adapted. Creatures a billion years deep in evolution developed rudimentary brains to ensure the survival of growing bodies - the brainstem to tend the body’s autonomic systems, then Limbic Systems to promote survival of self and survival of species, and ultimately cognitive cability.
In cosmic time, the evolution of these advancing creatures was but a blink of an eye, but they did advance; forming community and social structure, developing curiosity about the world around them - learning how to make and use tools, to harness the elements, to grow food, to alter their environments in order to aid their survival, and to stare at the glittering cosmos of the night sky and wonder at its beauty. Like the bright objects they observed, they too were composed of stardust and longed to return to it.
The universal waltz will go on. Things will change. One by one, the suns will burst forth in bright agony as they die and collapse, becoming matter so dense that it will absorb what light remains. The universe itself will slow then halt its expansion, then slowly, over billions, perhaps trillions of years will draw back to its original state; a cold, dense ball composed of protons, neutrons, and electrons in a timeless void, held tight in the grip of its own immense gravity. And when the last molecule shatters to atoms and the last atoms lose their cohesiveness and join all the other matter held in that quivering mass, the tipping point will be reached and it will explode, sending its microscopic parts outward in a chaotic spray of stardust that will begin this miraculous process once again.
This is my awe and wonder and glory, for we are stardust.
Aaron D. McClelland, MPCC-S - www.interiorcounselling.com