A Greek statesman who lived in the sixth century B.C. put forward the first explanation, shorn of theological trappings, that captured the essence of all things living and inanimate. Thales of Miletus noticed that water could exist as a liquid, gas or solid and posited that it was the fundamental constituent of matter from which the earth’s denizens—men, goats, flowers, rocks, and whatnot—somehow sprang forth.
As with all natural philosophy (a pursuit now known as science), Thales’ observation immediately provoked an argument. Anaximander, a disciple of Thales (today what would be called a graduate student), asked how water could be the single basic element if rock, sand and other substances appeared to be devoid of moisture.
The bickering about beginnings and the nature of our existence has not ceased in ensuing millennia, although Thales’ aqueous cosmology persists only as a passing citation in histories of philosophy and science. A definitive answer to the identity of the most basic ingredient of matter—and how it could ultimately lead to a world populated by iPhones and reruns of American Idol—still eludes today’s natural philosophers.
In early April a colloquy of 70 leading scientists assembled at Arizona State University to launch an Origins Initiative to ponder such questions as whether infinitesimal, stringlike particles may be candidates as the latest substitute for Thales’ vision of a wet world. An urge to deduce beginnings energizes the entire scientific endeavor—and of course that extends into the realm of biology. Appropriately, this year’s 150th anniversary of the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species coincides with a significant advance toward the milestone of demonstrating how life sprang from inanimate matter. A British team of chemists showed that one of the basic building blocks of life could form spontaneously from a warm soup of organic chemicals.
The immediacy of these themes is why this single-topic issue of Scientific American is devoted to origins in physics, chemistry, biology and technology. In the following pages, a physicist grapples with the overarching question of how the universe began. A chemist addresses possible ways in which life first started, and a biologist takes on what has made the human mind different from that of any other animal’s. Then a historian of technology contemplates the first computer, perhaps the most extraordinary invention of the human mind. A final section provides brief chronicles of the inception of dozens of physical and biological phenomena, in addition to a series of remarkable human inventions.
Whether related to rainbows, antibiotics or paper money, beginnings—and the stories they generate—serve as an endless source of fascination about the world around us.