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From cosmos to intelligent life: the four ages of astrobiology

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  26 July 2012

Marcelo Gleiser*
Department of Physics and Astronomy, Dartmouth College Hanover, NH 03755, USA


The history of life on Earth and in other potential life-bearing planetary platforms is deeply linked to the history of the Universe. Since life, as we know, relies on chemical elements forged in dying heavy stars, the Universe needs to be old enough for stars to form and evolve. The current cosmological theory indicates that the Universe is 13.7 ± 0.13 billion years old and that the first stars formed hundreds of millions of years after the Big Bang. At least some stars formed with stable planetary systems wherein a set of biochemical reactions leading to life could have taken place. In this paper, I argue that we can divide cosmological history into four ages, from the Big Bang to intelligent life. The physical age describes the origin of the Universe, of matter, of cosmic nucleosynthesis, as well as the formation of the first stars and Galaxies. The chemical age began when heavy stars provided the raw ingredients for life through stellar nucleosynthesis and describes how heavier chemical elements collected in nascent planets and Moons gave rise to prebiotic biomolecules. The biological age describes the origin of early life, its evolution through Darwinian natural selection and the emergence of complex multicellular life forms. Finally, the cognitive age describes how complex life evolved into intelligent life capable of self-awareness and of developing technology through the directed manipulation of energy and materials. I conclude discussing whether we are the rule or the exception.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2012

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