New Castle News

February 11, 2013

Mitchel Olszak: History as a matter of chance

Mitchel Olszak
New Castle News

NEW CASTLE — History is full of pivotal moments.

What if Socrates had decided against drinking that hemlock?

What if Gutenberg hadn’t developed his printing press?

What if Washington’s army failed to survive the winter at Valley Forge?

What if Edison gave up on inventing the light bulb?

Events of all sorts, big and small, shape the future. What we are today is a product of all that has happened in the past, good and bad, momentous and mundane.

But if Edison had failed to invent the light bulb, it’s likely someone else would have done so. In many instances, historic events aren’t all-or-nothing propositions. It’s just a matter of who gets the credit.

Than again, there are occurrences that absolutely send history in a completely different direction.

On Friday, an asteroid measuring about 147 feet in diameter will brush by the Earth. Its trajectory will take it inside the orbits of some satellites.

That’s a little too close for comfort.

An asteroid this size isn’t enough to destroy the planet, but depending on where it hit, the damage could be substantial.

Roughly 66 million years ago, a much larger object smacked into the planet. Researchers believe it hit near Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula. The impact left a crater 100 miles wide and spewed clouds of dirt into the atmosphere that darkened skies for years and substantially lowered temperatures.

One result of this impact was that it killed off the dinosaurs — at least the big ones. Many scientists will argue that today’s reptiles and birds are dinosaurs of sorts.

Yet within a relatively sort period of time, geologically at least, the massive reptiles of the past were gone. Life on Earth was about to change dramatically.

With large life forms wiped out, smaller creatures had more opportunities to survive. And lower temperatures gave an advantage to those that were warm blooded.

In other words, the demise of the dinosaurs gave rise to the age of mammals — and eventually human beings.

“I think it is fair to say, that without the dinosaurs having gone extinct, we would not be here,” said Paul Renne, director of the Berkeley Geochronology Center, in an interview last week with The Associated Press. Renne led the latest research that further confirms the theory that dinosaurs were killed off by an impact from a comet or asteroid.

Essentially, the removal of large animals from Earth eliminated competition, and created niches for new life forms. It was a process that took eons.

And it was undoubtedly aided by the fact mammals tend to have larger brains than their reptilian counterparts. Creatures that are more intelligent are more able to adapt.

The advantages produced by intelligence led to the rise of hominids and modern humans. It’s no coincidence that humans are the only creature of any size capable of living in all climates on the planet.

It’s interesting sometimes to look at the galaxy like a massive billiards table, with planets, stars and other objects at times threatening to bounce off each other. The seemingly clockwork nature of the universe is something quite different at times.

And because of the resultant chaos and destruction, a tiny species gained a foothold on an out-of-the-way planet.

The rest, as they say, is history.