The Very Beginning: Origin of the Universe, the Early Earth & Life (January 28 – February 1)

We’ll start the week finishing the biological basis of evolution, and then work into physical origins. Please review the links from last week, especially on DNA.

Here’s a cool YouTube video of the “known universe” produced by the American Museum of Natural History. This puts us in our place (cosmically!) and demonstrates the awesome dimensions of this week’s topic. I also enjoy this digital atlas of the Universe from the Hayden Planetarium. It is a significant download, but very nice. Here is a great interactive website on the Scale of the Universe. These sites give us perspective.

NASA has an excellent website on cosmology. For those of you looking for a simple red shift explanation, click away on this colorless but useful PBS webpage. It even has exercises you can try. There is a nice Big Bang animation on this French website; I may use it in class (despite the French).

This star formation site is easy to follow and understand (more or less). The JPL-NASA Solar System site has the latest news and fantastic images. The NASA Mars Missionwebpages are, of course, incredible. This webpage from NOVA has superb animations of the “Big Whack” hypothesis for the origin of the Moon.

Here is the homepage of NASA’s “Stardust” project, which brought to Earth the “dust” of a comet. Now you know the importance of this study to our ideas about the origin of the solar system because comets are samples of the original solar nebula.

Now for the complex and contentious ideas about the origin of life. The elaborate and elegant Exploring Life’s Origins website from the Museum of Science in Boston is the best on the topic. Here’s a good animated Miller-Urey experiment webpage I may use in class.

Chemists have found a recipe to build all four nucleotides of RNA in a way that could have happened on the surface of the early Earth. This is a biological breakthrough that could show a theoretical pathway to the RNA World. Very cool. Even more recently, an inorganic process has been discovered below the seafloor that produces the amino acid tryptophan. We’re closing in on a coherent hypothesis for the origin of life.

Late-breaking news: Here is a fascinating new narrative for the origin of life, including some possible solutions for other geological mysteries. I’m not sure how we’ll reduce the complexity for class, but we’ll try! As with all brand new scientific ideas, we eventually need thorough testing and review.

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Bivalves and brachiopods in the Logan Formation (Lower Carboniferous) of Wooster, Ohio.

Geology in the News –

Earth’s oldest rock was apparently found on the Moon by Apollo 14 astronauts. It is about 4.1 billion years old and was blasted off the Earth by a giant impact. You know there’s a good story here.

The Earth’s magnetic field  is acting strangely of late, and geologists are puzzled. We depend on the magnetic field to protect us from very harsh solar radiation, so this is a bit concerning.

The headline says it well: “People with extreme anti-science views know the least, but think they know the most: study.” No surprise.

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