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Blogging On History, Science, and Education

This New Era

Just before 1600, a Polish priest named Copernicus figured out that the Sun was the center of what then seemed the universe. You know that story and how it impacted a charismatic professor in Italy named Galileo.
It would take about two hundred years before most people and most authorities could accept the scientific proofs showing that Earth circles the Sun and not vice versa. When that happened we began embracing what is now known as the Scientific Revolution. It initiated a paradigm change in human thought.
Something as big as that revolution is occurring right now. I believe our time will be seen as the end of one era of thought and the beginning of a whole new one. We, as teachers, need to be aware of what’s going on.
For the first time in human history we actually know how the universe began. It was with a bang, a Big Bang. We have the information and we have the proofs. We now know, and can prove, that our home, Earth, is about 4.5 billion years old. We know there was single-celled life here on Earth 3.8 billion years ago. We have trace fossils that prove it. We know those single cells would soon be divided into two of life’s three domains: bacteria and archaea (single cells without a nucleus). Eukaryota (the third life domain, made of cells with a nucleus) were on their way. Astonishingly, the inhabitants of all three domains carry the same information system, informed by RNA and DNA. That they share a code strongly suggests they had a common ancestor.
Who was the common ancestor? That’s a question we can’t yet answer, but we’re working on it. We do know that Darwin’s tree of life, with its two branches, of plants and animals, just isn’t right. Nor is the prokaryote/eukaryote division of life, still in many textbooks. We’re just discovering the extent and diversity of microbial life; its mass is much greater than that of plants and animals. Life is more complex and varied than we imagined.
We can establish the antiquity of life’s three domains, all of which are still with us today, but we don’t know their origin. That’s the big question we’re working on. The search to answer it has become a kind of holy-grail quest, perhaps the most exciting of all human time. That search is not only absorbing the scientific world, where evolutionary science is impacting all the others, it has been embracing philosophers, religious leaders, and other big thinkers. To navigate the 21st century, our young learners will need a picture of life’s unfolding and astonishing dynamism.
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