OLLI Cal State East Bay

Bill Garrett, PhD 



From the Big Bang to the Biosphere:
Life's Deeper Story



For a long time, astrobiology was thought to be in the realm of science fiction. How did life emerge? The book of Genesis provides one narrative, but one that is difficult to reconcile with science. Indeed, a persistent challenge to evolutionary theorists─ posed not just Biblical literalists─ was that something was left out of Darwin’s account. Darwin’s claim that life variegated from a primordial form by way of “decent with modification”─ through the inherent dynamics he called natural selection. But how did that primordial life first arise? On what could the dynamics of natural selection go to work?


The challenge was taken seriously by science. In 1952, the scientists Stanley Miller and Harold Urey at the University of Chicago ran an experiment in which they put a precise mixture of water (H2O) methane, and hydrogen in a sealed container, sparked the mixture, and yielded 11 amino acids─ and primitive basis of life. Other scientists were unconvinced.


The most important breakthrough, however, was not a lab experiment: on September 28, 1969 a meteorite weighing some 220 pounds was observed to fall to earth near the town of Murchison, in West Australia. It has been dated as being older than the Earth─ predating the formation of our planet by millions of years. But more important, it is rife with the amino acids that Miller and Urey worked so hard to fabricate. One scientist examining the meteor claimed with astonishment: “It positively stinks of life!” The implication is clear: life is not restricted to planet Earth. Recent developments in cosmology and astrobiology point to a Universe that, from its earliest inception, was oriented toward supporting the emergence of life. The course will introduce participants to the drama of how the Big Bang variegated through billions of years to become─ us.







#1: David Christian─ The Origin Story

#2: On the Question of Life and Purpose

#3: Dark Matter and Life

#4: In the Search for Alien Life,“Everyone Is an Astrobiologist”


Supplementary Videos


Supplementary Readings

Voltaire: "Micromegas"