Interactive Timeline of the Universe: The Big Bang, Formation of Earth, and Evolution of Life

Some time ago I came across a very nicely done Flash animation showing how the universe and Earth have developed to this point:

screenshot of'evolution — what next?'
evolution — what next?.

The site features a timeline with a slider you can drag. It starts at the big bang, an estimated 13.7 billion years ago. Once the solar system forms some five billion years ago, it focuses on Earth. Since the most interesting things, from a human perspective, have happened recently, there are a series of supplemental sliders to focus on the most recent portion of each timeline. With simple animations, it’s a nice, easy way to visualize the history of our planet, and see just where our little story fits in.

Modern Fish, Coelacanths, Tiktaalik, and Us

Tiktaalik roseae, illustration
An illustration of Tiktaalik roseae from Wikipedia. Credit: ArthurWeasley.

In the last several years, scientists have mapped in detail the lines of descent that resulted in aquatic vertebrates (fish) being able to survive and function outside water—including lines of descent that today have resulted in the mammals. Periodic discoveries stimulate interest in the media, such as the discovery last year of the 375-million-year-old Tiktaalik, or occasional sightings of coelacanths, an order of fish once thought to be long-extinct. But how are these animals related to each other and to us?

New Scientist published an article last week discussing new research into the coelacanth’s fins (specifically, when the difference between the coelacanth’s symmetric appendages and our asymetric appendages arose). But what I found especially interesting was a graphic demonstrating the relationships between extant lifeforms and notable extinct relatives, including when they are thought to have lived.

Diagram showing relationship between extant fish and tetrapods and extinct relatives.
See full-sized image. Source: New Scientist.

Perhaps this will help provide a framework when reading about these fascinating animals.

Happy Birthday, Charles Darwin

As I mentioned in my previous post “Evolution Sunday,” today is Darwin Day, the anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin.

Darwin’s principles provide the fundamentals of modern biology and medicine and have contributed to other fields of science as well. His work helps us understand where we came from and where we are going, to understand the history of this planet.

Source: Wikipedia.

Happy Birthday, Charles Darwin. Thank you for everything you taught us.

Evolution Sunday

As our scientific understanding expands, it has naturally provided different explanations than the accounts given in the mythologies of the various religons. For the most part, religions long ago abandoned attempts to explain the natural world, leaving such mundane details to science and instead focusing on matters such as philosophy, morals, and ethics, as well as purely religious concepts such as spiritual salvation. The one notable attempt to continue following religious accounts, rather than scientific ones, is that regarding biological evolution. Primarily among some members of the Christian faith in the United States, proponents have gone so far as to attempt to remove selected scientific theories from public schools or even to teach their religious accounts alongside them, as if they were alternative theories instead of rooted in religious stories.

Naturally, such an action is unacceptable to those in the scientific community, and indeed, to many in the religious community (the two are not mutually exclusive, of course). Some people perceive there to be a conflict between science and religion. But science is agnostic on the subject of God. It neither affirms nor denies God’s existence, but rather seeks to find simple explanations for observations without invoking supernatural forces. And of course, many people believe that religion and science serve different functions, that explaining what lightning is or how the Earth was formed is better analyzed through science.

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What Does the Atmosphere Say About Earth?

To date, astronomers have discovered about 209 extrasolar planets; that is, planets outside our solar system. From Earth, it is quite difficult to even detect them, much less learn anything about them. We haven’t been able to determine much about these planets—usually only the mass—though we’ve been able to get glimpses of atmosphere in a couple cases.

Of course, we have no idea if there is life on other planets, or how we might detect it. One way to think about it is to imagine what other life forms might think of Earth if they were to stumble across it.

Continue reading “What Does the Atmosphere Say About Earth?”