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.
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.
All the Contents of the Universe, in One Graphic
We explore the ultimate frontier: the composition of the entire known universe, some of which are still being investigated today.
All the Contents of the Universe, in One Graphic
Scientists agree that the universe consists of three distinct parts: everyday visible (or measurable) matter, and two theoretical components called dark matter and dark energy.
These last two are theoretical because they have yet to be directly measured—but even without a full understanding of these mysterious pieces to the puzzle, scientists can infer that the universe’s composition can be broken down as follows:
|Free hydrogen and helium||4%|
Let’s look at each component in more detail.
Dark energy is the theoretical substance that counteracts gravity and causes the rapid expansion of the universe. It is the largest part of the universe’s composition, permeating every corner of the cosmos and dictating how it behaves and how it will eventually end.
Dark matter, on the other hand, has a restrictive force that works closely alongside gravity. It is a sort of “cosmic cement” responsible for holding the universe together. Despite avoiding direct measurement and remaining a mystery, scientists believe it makes up the second largest component of the universe.
Free Hydrogen and Helium
Free hydrogen and helium are elements that are free-floating in space. Despite being the lightest and most abundant elements in the universe, they make up roughly 4% of its total composition.
Stars, Neutrinos, and Heavy Elements
All other hydrogen and helium particles that are not free-floating in space exist in stars.
Stars are one of the most populous things we can see when we look up at the night sky, but they make up less than one percent—roughly 0.5%—of the cosmos.
Neutrinos are subatomic particles that are similar to electrons, but they are nearly weightless and carry no electrical charge. Although they erupt out of every nuclear reaction, they account for roughly 0.3% of the universe.
Heavy elements are all other elements aside from hydrogen and helium.
Elements form in a process called nucleosynthesis, which takes places within stars throughout their lifetimes and during their explosive deaths. Almost everything we see in our material universe is made up of these heavy elements, yet they make up the smallest portion of the universe: a measly 0.03%.
How Do We Measure the Universe?
In 2009, the European Space Agency (ESA) launched a space observatory called Planck to study the properties of the universe as a whole.
Its main task was to measure the afterglow of the explosive Big Bang that originated the universe 13.8 billion years ago. This afterglow is a special type of radiation called cosmic microwave background radiation (CMBR).
Temperature can tell scientists much about what exists in outer space. When investigating the “microwave sky”, researchers look for fluctuations (called anisotropy) in the temperature of CMBR. Instruments like Planck help reveal the extent of irregularities in CMBR’s temperature, and inform us of different components that make up the universe.
You can see below how the clarity of CMBR changes over time with multiple space missions and more sophisticated instrumentation.
What Else is Out There?
Scientists are still working to understand the properties that make up dark energy and dark matter.
NASA is currently planning a 2027 launch of the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope, an infrared telescope that will hopefully help us in measuring the effects of dark energy and dark matter for the first time.
As for what’s beyond the universe? Scientists aren’t sure.
There are hypotheses that there may be a larger “super universe” that contains us, or we may be a part of one “island” universe set apart from other island multiverses. Unfortunately we aren’t able to measure anything that far yet. Unravelling the mysteries of the deep cosmos, at least for now, remains a local endeavor.
Visualizing the Relationship Between Cancer and Lifespan
New research links mutation rates and lifespan. We visualize the data supporting this new framework for understanding cancer.
A Newfound Link Between Cancer and Aging?
A new study in 2022 reveals a thought-provoking relationship between how long animals live and how quickly their genetic codes mutate.
Cancer is a product of time and mutations, and so researchers investigated its onset and impact within 16 unique mammals. A new perspective on DNA mutation broadens our understanding of aging and cancer development—and how we might be able to control it.
Mutations, Aging, and Cancer: A Primer
Cancer is the uncontrolled growth of cells. It is not a pathogen that infects the body, but a normal body process gone wrong.
Cells divide and multiply in our bodies all the time. Sometimes, during DNA replication, tiny mistakes (called mutations) appear randomly within the genetic code. Our bodies have mechanisms to correct these errors, and for much of our youth we remain strong and healthy as a result of these corrective measures.
However, these protections weaken as we age. Developing cancer becomes more likely as mutations slip past our defenses and continue to multiply. The longer we live, the more mutations we carry, and the likelihood of them manifesting into cancer increases.
A Biological Conundrum
Since mutations can occur randomly, biologists expect larger lifeforms (those with more cells) to have greater chances of developing cancer than smaller lifeforms.
Strangely, no association exists.
It is one of biology’s biggest mysteries as to why massive creatures like whales or elephants rarely seem to experience cancer. This is called Peto’s Paradox. Even stranger: some smaller creatures, like the naked mole rat, are completely resistant to cancer.
This phenomenon motivates researchers to look into the genetics of naked mole rats and whales. And while we’ve discovered that special genetic bonuses (like extra tumor-suppressing genes) benefit these creatures, a pattern for cancer rates across all other species is still poorly understood.
Cancer May Be Closely Associated with Lifespan
Researchers at the Wellcome Sanger Institute report the first study to look at how mutation rates compare with animal lifespans.
Mutation rates are simply the speed at which species beget mutations. Mammals with shorter lifespans have average mutation rates that are very fast. A mouse undergoes nearly 800 mutations in each of its four short years on Earth. Mammals with longer lifespans have average mutation rates that are much slower. In humans (average lifespan of roughly 84 years), it comes to fewer than 50 mutations per year.
The study also compares the number of mutations at time of death with other traits, like body mass and lifespan. For example, a giraffe has roughly 40,000 times more cells than a mouse. Or a human lives 90 times longer than a mouse. What surprised researchers was that the number of mutations at time of death differed only by a factor of three.
Such small differentiation suggests there may be a total number of mutations a species can collect before it dies. Since the mammals reached this number at different speeds, finding ways to control the rate of mutations may help stall cancer development, set back aging, and prolong life.
The Future of Cancer Research
The findings in this study ignite new questions for understanding cancer.
Confirming that mutation rate and lifespan are strongly correlated needs comparison to lifeforms beyond mammals, like fishes, birds, and even plants.
It will also be necessary to understand what factors control mutation rates. The answer to this likely lies within the complexities of DNA. Geneticists and oncologists are continuing to investigate genetic curiosities like tumor-suppressing genes and how they might impact mutation rates.
Aging is likely to be a confluence of many issues, like epigenetic changes or telomere shortening, but if mutations are involved then there may be hopes of slowing genetic damage—or even reversing it.
While just a first step, linking mutation rates to lifespan is a reframing of our understanding of cancer development, and it may open doors to new strategies and therapies for treating cancer or taming the number of health-related concerns that come with aging.