Authors: Marcus Sedgwick
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Und die nie der Sonne lachten,
Unterm Mond auf Dornen wachten.
5: Stone Foot
(noun) from Latin
, and Greek
, “a coil.”
from Proto Indo-European
, “to turn, to twist.”
A spiral line, course, or object.
A two-dimensional curve, the locus of a point whose distance from a fixed point varies according to some rule as the radius vector revolves.
A continuous rise or fall, as of prices, for example.
A helix (nontechnical use).
(noun) from Latin
, “to turn, twist, roll.”
from Proto Indo-European
, from root
“to turn, revolve.”
A screw-shaped coil.
A curve on a developable surface, especially a right circular cylinder that becomes a straight line when unrolled into a plane.
Generations of stars lived and died.
Around 4,600 million years ago, the death of one of these stars, in a supernova, causes a shockwave to hit a vast molecular cloud, or nebula, made of dust and gas. Words cannot describe how large this nebula is. Only numbers can; it would take a particle of light sixty-five years to cross it.
The shockwave triggers a reaction in the nebula; the dust particles within it are drawn together and as they collide and stick together, so their gravitational attraction causes more and more material to coalesce, so that now a small part of the cloud starts to collapse and spin. Over the course of the next 100,000 years, the competing forces of gravity, pressure, magnetism, and rotation creates the beginnings of the Solar System; the vast majority of matter forms at the center of this spinning disc, the Sun. Around it revolves a mess of gas and dust that will, as tens of millions of years pass, form the planets.
The Solar System at this time is cluttered and chaotic; an overcrowded maelstrom of rocky planets, gas giants, moons, and asteroids all hurtling through clouds of dust and gas left over from the Sun's formation. Collisions are inevitable, and they occur.
About 4,500 million years ago, a giant body the size of Mars hits the newly forming Earth. Known as Theia, it slews into the proto-planet at an oblique angle; most of its matter fuses with the Earth. Its iron core sinks to join with the iron core of Earth; but a significant amount of the crusts of both planets is flung back into space where it becomes our Moon.
The impact of Theia proves critical to our existence.
The Solar System is bathed in electromagnetic radiation given off by the Sun, deadly to most forms of lifeâcertainly to human beings, but the iron core of Earth is larger than it would have otherwise been, large enough to remain hot and liquid. The warm liquid rises and falls in strong convection currents within the Earth's core, which, together with the Earth's high rotational speed, gives the planet a powerful magnetic field. It is this magnetic field that repels the great majority of the radiation, sending the charged particles back out into space, or spiralling down the lines of magnetism to the poles of the Earth, where they collide with the atmosphere, causing the Northern Lights, and their southern counterpart.
The impact of Theia also causes a wobble in the Earth's rotationâit is this wobble that gives us our seasons; spring to summer to autumn to winter; and yet it is also the continuing presence of the Moon after the collision that stabilizes the Earth's motion. Without which the variation in temperature between our seasons would be much greater, lurching between extremes of hot and cold that could make our life here impossible.
A period of relative peace arrives, but then around 500 million years later, the gravitational effects of Jupiter and Saturn not only move Neptune and Pluto farther out into space, but also start to influence the uncountable number of asteroids in orbit. Many are pushed out into deep space, but some are propelled into the inner Solar System, colliding with the Earth and the Moon.
As the Earth is struck again and again, the temperature of our planet's surface rises high enough to melt rock, turning our home into a deadly hell. Yet the Late Heavy Bombardment, as it is known, dies away relatively rapidly. In its wake comes a steady trickle of impacts with icy comets and asteroids. These deliver water to Earth from the outer, colder regions of the Solar System; water that will form the oceans. And they also deliver something else; organic compounds, from which the development of life itself is possible.
The Late Heavy Bombardment would have almost certainly eradicated any life on Earth that existed at the time; and yet, the earliest forms of life we have discovered, simple cells without a nucleus, known as “prokaryotes,” date to immediately after the end of the impacts.
Impacts of objects from space still occur.
It is believed that the time of the dinosaurs ended in a mass extinction around sixty-five million years ago, the result of a collision with an asteroid. Even in the life of our own species, events such as the Tunguska explosion of 1908, or the Chelyabinsk meteor strike of 2013, show that the danger is not over; collision with an asteroid large enough would throw enough dust into the atmosphere to block out the Sun for many years, causing vegetation, and those animals that depend on it, to die out. Of all the species of life that have ever existed, it is estimated that 99.9 percent are now extinct.
Yet somewhere in the time since the dinosaurs were destroyed, the mammals that somehow survived evolved, eventually leading to the arrival on Earth, some 4,598 million years after its formation, of mankind.
We cling to the surface of our planet; we live, for the most part, in a tiny layer of breathable gases wrapped around a ball of rock that flies through space, revolving around the Sun. But our path through space is not circular, because the Sun itself is traveling; heading away from the galactic center as the Universe expands. So the shape that we describe as we fly through space is not a line, nor even a circle; as the Earth revolves around the Sun, which itself moves out through space, we form quite another shape altogether; the three-dimensional spiral known as a “helix.”
There are four quarters to this story; they can be read in any order and the story will work. The four quarters are assembled here in just one of twenty-four possible combinations; this order makes one kind of sense, but the reader should feel free to choose a different order, and a different sense, if desired.