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Shobhit Mahajan

By Peter Ackroyd
D.K. Printworld, New Delhi, 2003, £4.20 each

Popular Prakashan, Delhi, 2004 & 2005, Rs. 95.00 each

VOLUME XXIX NUMBER 11 November 2005

One of the most important unanswered questions in science is that of the origin of life on earth. Did life originate spontaneously from a soup of chemicals under the influence of ultraviolet rays and lightning? How did the complex, self-replicating molecules emerge from the primeval soup? Or did life actually emerge in some other part of the universe but was transported in the form of microorganisms by meteorites and asteroids?   These are questions on which there is still disagreement amongst scientists. But even if we ignore the question of the origin of life, we still need to understand how unbelievably complex organisms like human beings came into being from the humble molecular beginnings. These are fascinating questions which touch upon many fields of science—from astrophysics to climatology to geology and of course biology. Peter Ackroyd’s book, The Beginning is an excellent attempt to put forward the known facts for the lay reader. It starts appropriately with the beginning of the universe some 14 billion years ago in a cataclysmic explosion, the Big Bang which created “being out of nothingness”. Then, for some 10 billion years, galaxies, stars and everything else in the universe was made—not by a creator or designer but by the forces of nature. There are hundreds of millions of galaxies like our own Milky Way, each containing hundreds of millions of stars—one such star is our Sun. Then, about 4.6 billion years ago, a “fiery sphere, which we now call home, rushed through space as the third planet in the empire of the new Sun”.   The first age of the world is called the Hadean, from Hades, the Greek word for Hell. And hell it was with temperatures greater than 5000 C, millions of meteorites hitting it and its internal heat making it quite “unlivable”! This went on for many millions of years—the earth’s crust was formed as the planet cooled and there was massive volcanic activity. And then, at some time, a miracle happened—life erupted spontaneously.   The saga of these early years of Earth is not discussed in any great detail in this book. Maybe because we know so little about it. What we do know for sure is that once life emerged it flowered, evolved according to the pressures of survival into a mindboggling diversity—from the earliest known microscopic fossils dating from over 3.5 billion years to the enormous number of species ...

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