Being on the lake in Chicago in the summer is amazing. You have miles of volleyball nets, bike lanes, baseball fields and sandy beaches. Clear skies with cloud puffs, the azure blueness of the lake is sparkled with white specks of boats of all types and sizes, with music, lights and happy crowds. Then, there’s the Air and Water show in August.
As if it wasn’t enough, every week from Memorial Day to Labor Day, Chicago Navy Pier has firework shows.
One of these wonderful summer evenings we were guests at our friend’s boat party. It was Saturday, and he took us in time for the fireworks right to the best spot. So when the show started, we were surrounded by the crackling, flashing, bright explosions everywhere we could see.
There were so many types of fireworks, each one was different, but all fascinating! But most of all I was enjoying the glittering crackles — when the initial bright flash throws the sparkles around, and then, instead of dying, they come back to life for a little encore, sparkling, like a huge flower of bright glittering stars.
Then it occurred to my slightly drunk and very happy mind that I have seen something like this before!
The Big Bang
All started 13 billion years ago. A flash of energy of unimaginable power created space and immediately densely packed it with hard radiation and hot, opaque plasma. As the Universe proceeded to inflate, forces separated. In 240k years (incredibly short time at the scale of the Universe) matter cooled enough to let hydrogen and helium capture electrons.
Space was finally transparent, photons were free to fly in all direction, and they did. The dark ages started. A fog of hydrogen and helium was everywhere, but no stars existed yet. It got quiet and boring for some time.
Then, the thin mist began to collapse under the force of gravity. Eventually it compacted in clumps so tight that the pressure initiated nuclear fusion. The first stars were born. Magnificent, of enormous size never seen since then, they lit up like bright flashes of blinding light everywhere you looked. These blue giants lived very short but incredibly powerful and turbulent lives. Extremely quickly and furiously they burned through their fuel and in only a few million years exploded in massive supernovae, seeding the Universe with heavy elements for the first time.
The gravity didn’t take time off. It swept stardust from the first generation of stars together, coalesced it into protogalaxies — enormous clouds of matter. In our 3D world there can only be a single 2D plane in which a momentum is preserved, so they formed huge rotating disks. Waves of pressure created “arms” of high density in their structure, rising concentration of matter, allowing for formation of the second generation of stars, lighting up the galaxy in a whirling dance of shining blueish light. One of these stars was our Sun!
And this is when we live. Look around and imagine that you’re in the middle of an exploding firework. Like in a slow motion video, the time has been put on hold for a moment, you see brightly burning pieces of gunpowder everywhere around you. The balls and spirals of dazzling light are galaxies. The blobs and curtains of colored smoke — nebulae.
Let the time run freely again, and in a few billions years fewer and fewer stars are forming. Less and less of explosive fuel is available. More and more dust and smoke is accumulated. And then, in a blink of an eye, the show is over. One or two relativistic jets in the vicinity. Space is interspersed with dimly glowing red dwarfs, like bits of coal in an almost extinguished fireplace. Otherwise — a slightly warm nothingness everywhere you can see.
But hey, while it lasted — it was the best show in the Universe! Literally!
The tinder of life
Let’s rewind this process back, to more interesting times, somewhere soon after the first supernovae and neutron star collisions have spread heavy elements through the Universe.
That’s the reign of the second generation of stars. With all the fancy atoms present in star nurseries, it’s not just stars that are formed this time. The huge, rotating cloud around a glowing protostar is full of dense matter — it’s dust, it’s stones, it’s.. planets!
A newly born system is full of asteroids flying in all directions. Huge balls of molten rock collide and give birth to moons. But let a few hundred millions of years pass — and look how tidy it has become! The fresh star in the center is flooding the planets’ surfaces with sunrays. The magnetic fields, generated by the liquid core and magma of the planets, protect the surface from the charged wind of energetic particles. As a result of chemical reactions, caused by ionizing radiation and lightning storms, all kinds of complex molecules are formed.
And this could go on forever, until the reactions would run out of fuel. For uncountable ages, the planet would heat up during the day and cool down during the night. Seasons would evaporate gases in the summer and freeze in the winter. We have an example of such a lifeless eternity in our Solar system — Titan. A world like this can stay boring for billions of years, unchanged.
But this didn’t happen to Earth. A runaway self-sustaining reaction created protolife. Evolution took it from there. And, exponentially fast, the planet was covered in living beings.
Thanks to the complex molecules, life had means for initial growth. Just like a mill uses flow of water on a river, living beings “unpack” the energy stored in products of chemical reactions and physical processes. Life plays its own role in increasing the entropy of the universe. It replaces the inflexible engines of non-living nature with more complex and efficient entropy machines.
Like tinder in a camp fire, tiny efforts of life initiate reactions that release stored energy on a much bigger scale. The more ingenious life is, the more complex “mills” it can install to use the flow of energy. And then it goes to the source — it starts collecting the power of its own star directly. Plants evolve and serve as the primary producers. Life creates vast ecosystems. The more complex and intelligent life is — the more central becomes the role it plays. Very quickly it changes planets. Give it some time and it will conquer stars. It has the potential to change the fate of the Universe itself.
Sparkles of Big Bang
If we had a special “life-detecting” telescope, and pointed it at our Universe right now, we would see humanity being born. At first a dim point, like a small bit of tinder, life on our planet is growing from a tiny spark to an all-engulfing flame. From thin films of bacterial mats to Cambrian explosion. From dinosaurs to Anthropocene.
In the universal show of fireworks intelligent life plays its own role. It lights its own fires, changes the universe with fireworks of creativity and ingenuity. It’s a different type of fireworks. It’s fireworks of neural networks. Of bright individuals. Of complex societies. It’s almost as if the Universe itself is becoming conscious, waking up from a long sleep and trying to understand itself.
But remember, at the very beginning it all started with Big Bang. You and me. Every single living being around us. We are all just sparkles of the magnificent Big Bang firework.