Nature Timespiral: The Evolution of Earth from the Big Bang
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Nature Timespiral: The Evolution of Earth from the Big Bang

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This spiral timeline shows the events that led us to our modern world, from the Big Bang to the present.

Click to view a larger version of the graphic. For a full-size option or to inquire about posters, please visit Pablo Carlos Budassi’s website.

Nature Timespiral: The Evolution of Earth from the Big Bang

Since the dawn of humanity, we have looked questioningly to the heavens with great interest and awe. We’ve called on the stars to guide us, and have made some of humanity’s most interesting discoveries based on those observations. This also led us to question our existence and how we came to be in this moment in time.

That journey began some 14 billion years ago, when the Big Bang led to the universe emerging from a hot, dense sea of matter and energy. As the cosmos expanded and cooled, they spawned galaxies, stars, planets, and eventually, life.

In the above visualization, Pablo Carlos Buddassi illustrates this journey of epic proportions in the intricately designed Nature Timespiral, depicting the various eras that the Earth has gone through since the inception of the universe itself.

Evolutionary Timeline of the World

Not much is known about what came before the Big Bang, but we do know that it launched a sequence of events that gave rise to the universal laws of physics and the chemical elements that make up matter. How the Earth came about, and life subsequently followed, is a wondrous story of time and change.

Let’s look at what transpired after the Big Bang to trace our journey through the cosmos.

The Big Bang and Hadean Eon

The Big Bang formed the entire universe that we know, including the elements, forces, stars, and planets. Hydrogen and massive dissipation of heat dominated the initial stages of the universe.

During a time span known as the Hadean eon, our Solar System formed within a large cloud of gas and dust. The Sun’s gravitational pull brought together spatial particles to create the Earth and other planets, but they would take a long time to reach their modern forms.

Archean Eon (4 – 2.5 billion years ago)

After its initial formation, the surface of the Earth was extremely hot and entirely liquid. This subsequent eon saw the planet cool down massively, solidifying some of the liquid surface and giving rise to oceans and continents, as well as the first recorded history of rocks.

Early in this time frame, known as the Archean eon, life appeared on Earth. The oldest discovered fossils, consisting of tiny, preserved microorganisms, date to this eon roughly 3.5 billion years ago.

Paleoproterozoic Era (2.5 – 1.6 billion years ago)

The first era of the Proterozoic Eon, the Paleoproterozoic, was the longest in Earth’s geological history. Tectonic plates arose and landmasses shifted across the globe—it was the beginning of the formation of the Earth we know today.

Cyanobacteria, the first organisms using photosynthesis, also appeared during this period. Their photosynthetic activity brought about a rapid upsurge in atmospheric oxygen, resulting in the Great Oxidation Event. This killed off many primordial anaerobic bacterial groups but paved the way for multicellular life to grow and flourish.

Mesoproterozoic Era (1.6 – 1 billion years ago)

The Mesoproterozoic occurred during what is known as the “boring billion” stage of Earth’s history. That is due to a lack of widespread geochemical activity and the relative stability of the ocean carbon reservoirs.

But this era did see the break-up of the supercontinents and the formation of new continents. This period also saw the first noted case of sexual reproduction among organisms and the probable appearance of multicellular organisms and green plants.

Neoproterozoic Era (1 billion – 542.0 million years ago)

In some respects, the Neoproterozoic era is one of the most profound time periods in Earth’s history. It bookends two major moments in the planet’s evolutionary timeline, with predominantly microbial life on one side, and the introduction of diverse, multicellular organisms on the other.

At the same time, Earth also experienced severe glaciations known as the Cryogenian Period and its first ice age, also known as Snowball Earth.

The era saw the formation of the ozone layer and the earliest evidence of multicellular life, including the emergence of the first hard-shelled animals, such as trilobites and archaeocyathids.

Paleozoic Era (541 million – 252 million years ago)

The Paleozoic is best known for ushering in an explosion of life on Earth, with two of the most critical events in the history of animal life. At its beginning, multicellular animals underwent a dramatic Cambrian explosion in aquatic diversity, and almost all living animals appeared within a few millions of years.

At the other end of the Paleozoic, the largest mass extinction in history resulted in 96% of marine life and 70% of terrestrial life dying out. Halfway between these events, animals, fungi, and plants colonized the land, and the insects took to the air.

Mesozoic Era (252 million – 66 million years ago)

The Mesozoic was the Age of Reptiles. Dinosaurs, crocodiles, and pterosaurs ruled the land and air. This era can be subdivided into three periods of time:

  • Triassic (252 to 201.3 million years ago)
  • Jurassic (201.3 to 145 million years ago)
  • Cretaceous (145 to 66 million years ago)

The rise of the dinosaurs began at the end of the Triassic Period. A fossil of one of the earliest-known dinosaurs, a two-legged omnivore roughly three feet long-named Eoraptor, is dated all the way back to this time.

Scientists believe the Eoraptor (and a few other early dinosaurs still being discovered today) evolved into the many species of well-known dinosaurs that would dominate the planet during the Jurassic period. They would continue to flourish well into the Cretaceous period, when it is widely accepted that the Chicxulub impactor, the plummeting asteroid that crashed into Earth off the coast of Mexico, brought about the end of the Age of Reptiles.

Cenozoic Era (66 million – Present Day)

After the end of the Age of Dinosaurs, this era saw massive adaptations by natural flora and fauna to survive. The plants and animals that formed during this era look most like those on Earth today.

The earliest forms of modern mammals, amphibians, birds, and reptiles can be traced back to the Cenozoic. Human history is entirely contained within this period, as apes developed through evolutionary pressure and gave rise to the present-day human being or Homo sapiens.

Compared to the evolutionary timeline of the world, human history has risen quite rapidly and dramatically. Going from our first stone tools and the Age of the Kings to concrete jungles with modern technology may seem like a long journey, but compared to everything that came before it, is but a brief blink of an eye.

*Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article contained errors in the header graphic and an incorrect citation, and has since been updated.

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This article was published as a part of Visual Capitalist's Creator Program, which features data-driven visuals from some of our favorite Creators around the world.

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Technology

Synthetic Biology: The $3.6 Trillion Science Changing Life as We Know It

The field of synthetic biology could solve problems in a wide range of industries, from medicine to agriculture—here’s how.

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How Synthetic Biology Could Change Life as we Know it

Synthetic biology (synbio) is a field of science that redesigns organisms in an effort to enhance and support human life. According to one projection, this rapidly growing field of science is expected to reach $28.8 billion in global revenue by 2026.

Although it has the potential to transform many aspects of society, things could go horribly wrong if synbio is used for malicious or unethical reasons. This infographic explores the opportunities and potential risks that this budding field of science has to offer.

What is Synthetic Biology?

We’ve covered the basics of synbio in previous work, but as a refresher, here’s a quick explanation of what synbio is and how it works.

Synbio is an area of scientific research that involves editing and redesigning different biological components and systems in various organisms.

It’s like genetic engineering but done at a more granular level—while genetic engineering transfers ready-made genetic material between organisms, synbio can build new genetic material from scratch.

The Opportunities of Synbio

This field of science has a plethora of real-world applications that could transform our everyday lives. A study by McKinsey found over 400 potential uses for synbio, which were broken down into four main categories:

  • Human health and performance
  • Agriculture and food
  • Consumer products and services
  • Materials and energy production

If those potential uses become reality in the coming years, they could have a direct economic impact of up to $3.6 trillion per year by 2030-2040.

1. Human Health and Performance

The medical and health sector is predicted to be significantly influenced by synbio, with an economic impact of up to $1.3 trillion each year by 2030-2040.

Synbio has a wide range of medical applications. For instance, it can be used to manipulate biological pathways in yeast to produce an anti-malaria treatment.

It could also enhance gene therapy. Using synbio techniques, the British biotech company Touchlight Genetics is working on a way to build synthetic DNA without the use of bacteria, which would be a game-changer for the field of gene therapy.

2. Agriculture and Food

Synbio has the potential to make a big splash in the agricultural sector as well—up to $1.2 trillion per year by as early as 2030.

One example of this is synbio’s role in cellular agriculture, which is when meat is created from cells directly. The cost of creating lab-grown meat has decreased significantly in recent years, and because of this, various startups around the world are beginning to develop a variety of cell-based meat products.

3. Consumer Products and Services

Using synthetic biology, products could be tailored to suit an individual’s unique needs. This would be useful in fields such as genetic ancestry testing, gene therapy, and age-related skin procedures.

By 2030-2040, synthetic biology could have an economic impact on consumer products and services to the tune of up to $800 billion per year.

4. Materials and Energy Production

Synbio could also be used to boost efficiency in clean energy and biofuel production. For instance, microalgae are currently being “reprogrammed” to produce clean energy in an economically feasible way.

This, along with other material and energy improvements through synbio methods, could have a direct economic impact of up to $300 billion each year.

The Potential Risks of Synbio

While the potential economic and societal benefits of synthetic biology are vast, there are a number of risks to be aware of as well:

  • Unintended biological consequences: Making tweaks to any biological system can have ripple effects across entire ecosystems or species. When any sort of lifeform is manipulated, things don’t always go according to plan.
  • Moral issues: How far we’re comfortable going with synbio depends on our values. Certain synbio applications, such as embryo editing, are controversial. If these types of applications become mainstream, they could have massive societal implications, with the potential to increase polarization within communities.
  • Unequal access: Innovation and progress in synbio is happening faster in wealthier countries than it is in developing ones. If this trend continues, access to these types of technology may not be equal worldwide. We’ve already witnessed this type of access gap during the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines, where a majority of vaccines have been administered in rich countries.
  • Bioweaponry: Synbio could be used to recreate viruses, or manipulate bacteria to make it more dangerous, if used with ill intent.

According to a group of scientists at the University of Edinburgh, communication between the public, synthetic biologists, and political decision-makers is crucial so that these societal and environmental risks can be mitigated.

Balancing Risk and Reward

Despite the risks involved, innovation in synbio is happening at a rapid pace.

By 2030, most people will have likely eaten, worn, or been treated by a product created by synthetic biology, according to synthetic biologist Christopher A. Voigt.

Our choices today will dictate the future of synbio, and how we navigate through this space will have a massive impact on our future—for better, or for worse.

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Politics

The Science of Nuclear Weapons, Visualized

Nuclear weapons have devastating effects, but the science of how they work is atomically small. So, how do nuclear weapons work?

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Visualized: How Nuclear Weapons Work

In 1945, the world’s first-ever nuclear weapon was detonated at the Trinity test site in New Mexico, United States, marking the beginning of the Atomic Age.

Since then, the global nuclear stockpile has multiplied, and when geopolitical tensions rise, the idea of a nuclear apocalypse understandably causes widespread concern.

But despite their catastrophically large effects, the science of how nuclear weapons work is atomically small.

The Atomic Science of Nuclear Weapons

All matter is composed of atoms, which host different combinations of three particles—protons, electrons, and neutrons. Nuclear weapons work by capitalizing on the interactions of protons and neutrons to create an explosive chain reaction.

At the center of every atom is a core called the nucleus, which is composed of closely-bound protons and neutrons. While the number of protons is unique to each element in the periodic table, the number of neutrons can vary. As a result, there are multiple “species” of some elements, known as isotopes.

For example, here are some isotopes of uranium:

  • Uranium-238: 92 protons, 146 neutrons
  • Uranium-235: 92 protons, 143 neutrons
  • Uranium-234: 92 protons, 142 neutrons

These isotopes can be stable or unstable. Stable isotopes have a relatively static or unchanging number of neutrons. But when a chemical element has too many neutrons, it becomes unstable or fissile.

When fissile isotopes attempt to become stable, they shed excess neutrons and energy. This energy is where nuclear weapons get their explosivity from.

There are two types of nuclear weapons:

  • Atomic Bombs: These rely on a domino effect of multiple fission reactions to produce an explosion, using either uranium or plutonium.
  • Hydrogen Bombs: These rely on a combination of fission and fusion using uranium or plutonium, with the help of lighter elements like the isotopes of hydrogen.

So, what exactly is the difference between fission and fusion reactions?

Splitting Atoms: Nuclear Fission

Nuclear fission—the process used by nuclear reactors—produces large amounts of energy by breaking apart a heavier unstable atom into two smaller atoms, starting a nuclear chain reaction.

When a neutron is fired into the nucleus of a fissile atom like uranium-235, the uranium atom splits into two smaller atoms known as “fissile fragments” in addition to more neutrons and energy. These excess neutrons can then start a self-sustaining chain reaction by hitting the nuclei of other uranium-235 atoms, resulting in an atomic explosion.

Atomic bombs use nuclear fission, though it’s important to note that a fission chain reaction requires a particular amount of a fissile material like uranium-235, known as the supercritical mass.

Merging Atoms: Nuclear Fusion

Hydrogen bombs use a combination of fission and fusion, with nuclear fusion amplifying a fission reaction to produce a much more powerful explosion than atomic bombs.

Fusion is essentially the opposite of fission—instead of splitting a heavier atom into smaller atoms, it works by putting together two atoms to form a third unstable atom. It’s also the same process that fuels the Sun.

Nuclear fusion mainly relies on isotopes of lighter elements, like the two isotopes of hydrogen—deuterium and tritium. When subjected to intense heat and pressure, these two atoms fuse together to form an extremely unstable helium isotope, which releases energy and neutrons.

The released neutrons then fuel the fission reactions of heavier atoms like uranium-235, creating an explosive chain reaction.

How Atomic and Hydrogen Bombs Compare

Just how powerful are hydrogen bombs, and how do they compare to atomic bombs?

BombTypeEnergy produced (kilotons of TNT)
Little Boy 🇺🇸 Atomic15kt
Fat Man 🇺🇸 Atomic21kt
Castle Bravo 🇺🇸 Hydrogen15,000kt
Tsar Bomba 🇷🇺Hydrogen51,000kt

The bombs Little Boy and Fat Man were used in the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, bringing a destructive end to World War II. The scale of these bombings was, at the time, unparalleled. But comparing these to hydrogen bombs shows just how powerful nuclear weapons have become.

Castle Bravo was the codename for the United States’ largest-ever nuclear weapon test, a hydrogen bomb that produced a yield of 15,000 kilotons—making it 1,000 times more powerful than Little Boy. What’s more, radioactive traces from the explosion, which took place on the Marshall Islands near Fiji, were found in Australia, India, Japan, U.S., and Europe.

Seven years later, the Soviet Union tested Tsar Bomba in 1961, the world’s most powerful nuclear weapon. The explosion produced 51,000 kilotons of explosive energy, with a destructive radius of roughly 60km.

Given how damaging a single nuke can be, it’s difficult to imagine the outcome of an actual nuclear conflict without fear of total annihilation, especially with the world’s nuclear arsenal sitting at over 13,000 warheads.

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