For four billion years, Earth was populated by living things with no grasp of their situation nor control over it. Then at last came something new: a creature aching for understanding, and, through it, for mastery.
We arrived as naked animals like the rest, clueless and powerless, pitiful really. But we got to work. We started making tools from rocks and sticks and bones, whatever we could find. We started making fire. We started making words.
With words, we could start building knowledge by passing it along. That went into overdrive when we figured out how to write.
Meantime, with fire, we began melting metal from stone to make better tools. Then, after millennia foraging for food, we found a way to make that too. This was our first, and most profound, declaration of independence. And, once sure of our next meal, we could do so much more: we could have permanent homes, then cities, and civilization, and Facebook.
But still we understood so little. The sky, the sun and stars, were mysteries, so too the earth below, wind and rain, and even the inside our own skins. We faced a mountain of secrets we could barely scratch away at, crumb by crumb. It took a long time just to find the right way to scratch: Aristotle, Archimedes, Lucretius, Francis Bacon scratched their way to the method we call science, to pile up those hard-won crumbs of truth, to build them into castles.
Copernicus, Brahe, Galileo, Kepler, Newton, Herschel (and many more; always many more) began to decipher the celestial blueprint; men like Vesalius and Harvey our inner one. Always so much to figure out. People like Francis Bacon and Newton again, and Boyle, Priestley, Bernoulli, Lavoisier, Wohler, started to untangle the underlying fabric of existence; Dalton and Mendeleev to weave its pattern.
And it was not just a picture we were making – we were making power. It began with putting animals to work; then gradually fire, and coal, and water power; then James Watt started putting steam to work. Men like Franklin, Faraday, Ohm, Maxwell, began to dissect the forces of nature itself; and ones like Morse, Edison, Bell and Westinghouse to harness those unseen yet even more powerful forces too, at our command.
Slowly at first, one little innovation, invention or improvement at a time, bit by bit, then gathering speed, ever faster, ever better, our machines commenced to whirr and hum, making things and making tools to make more things, tools for living, to chop away our age-old shackles. Before, just staying alive took all the work we could do; life was something to be endured. Now it could be enjoyed.
And we could get more of it as well. Suffering, pain and disease had always been our constant afflictions, but these too we strove against: Lister, Koch, Pasteur, Fleming, Salk, and a million others, scratching away at another side of that mountain. In the great war of life against death, the tide of battle at long last began to turn.
Yet still so much more to figure out. Still we had only myths for how we’d even got here. But then came a man who actually figured that out. Charles Darwin had what’s been called the best idea ever. But “idea” is an inadequate word: it was an incredible revelation. (Literally incredible, to some even today.)
Darwin gave us the big picture scoop on living things. Yet still we needed much more, to get inside the clockwork. Mendel, Morgan, and Dobzhansky figured it out, on one level; Watson and Crick on a deeper level; and today we continue going deeper still.
And just as Copernicus and Newton gave us the big picture of the cosmos, here too the mountain was really hardly scratched. Came now people like Einstein, Rutherford, Curie, Planck, Fermi, Bohr, Heisenberg, Schrodinger, teasing out the clockwork at the innermost level of existence. And the outermost too: we have taken the measure of cosmic vastness, and even figured out how it all began, with the Big Bang.
But this whole story, starting with the first creature with a mind not just to wonder but to scratch, to figure something out, has all been one great big bang. Our at first pitiable but indefatigable and ever deeper scratchings have not yet leveled that mountain – but we have penetrated far into its core. All that’s knowable shall be known.
There are no gods; just us; but that’s enough.