2. What happened during Earth’s “dark age” (the
rst 500 million years)?
It is now believed that during Earth’s forma-tion, a Mars-sized planet collided with it, creating ahuge cloud of debris that became Earth’s Moon andreleasing so much heat that the entire planet melted.But little is known about how the resulting moltenrock evolved during the planet’s infancy into the
Earth we know today. The rst 500 million years of
Earth’s existence, known as the Hadean Eon, is acritical missing link in understanding how the planet’satmosphere, oceans, and differentiated layers of core,mantle, and outer crust developed. Scientists havealmost no idea how fast the surface environmentevolved, how the transition took place, or when condi-tions became hospitable enough to support life.Some clues from Earth’s oldest minerals (zir-cons), as well as from Earth’s Moon and other planetsare allowing a clearer picture of the Hadean Eon togradually emerge. The future is certain to provideadditional breakthroughs. The amount of informationthat can be extracted from even the tiniest samples of old rocks and minerals is increasing rapidly, and withconcerted effort, it is expected that many more ancientrocks and mineral samples will be found.
3. How did life begin?
The Origin of Species
, Charles Darwin (1859)hypothesized that new species arise by the modica
-tion of existing ones—that the raw material of life islife. But somehow and somewhere, the tree of life hadto take root from nonliving precursors. When, where,
and in what form did life rst appear? The origin of life is one of the most intriguing, difcult, and endur
-ing questions in science.Scientists have toiled to create life from sparks
and gasses in the laboratory to illuminate how life rst
formed in Earth’s early conditions. But even pinningdown what those early conditions were remains anelusive goal. From what materials did life originate?Did life, as Darwin speculated, originate in a “warmlittle pond,” perhaps a tidal pool repeatedly dried andrefreshed? Or might life be rooted among hydrother-mal vents? Could life’s origins even lie beyond Earth?Developing an accurate picture of the physicalenvironments and the chemical building blocks avail-able to early life is a critical Earth science challenge.Clues to shed light on these mysteries stem largelyfrom investigations of Earth’s ancient rocks and min-erals—the only remaining evidence of the time when
Earth’s life rst emerged.
4. How does Earth’s interior work, and how does it affect the surface?
As planets age and cool off, their internal andsurface processes gradually change. Manifestations of changes within Earth’s interior—such as the develop-
ment of mountains and volcanoes—have a huge inu
-ence on the nature of Earth’s surface and atmosphere.Scientists know that much of the rock in theEarth’s mantle (the thick layer between the core andcrust), which is under extreme pressure and very hightemperature, behaves like a viscous liquid. This vastinterior, however, is largely inaccessible to directstudy. For over a century, seismic wave, geomagnetic,and gravity measurements made at the surface have been improving understanding of Earth’s internalstructure. Despite continuing advances, however,scientists are only beginning to explore the connec-
tions between Earth’s core, magnetic eld, mantle,
and surface and to investigate why Earth differs fromother planets, or how it may change in the future.
5. Why does Earth have plate tectonics and
A major focus of Earth science has been ondeciphering the nature of the continents—the featuresthat make Earth habitable for land-dwelling life. Howand when did the continents form? How have theychanged? Why do the Atlantic coastlines of SouthAmerica and Africa look like pieces of a puzzle?Plate tectonics—the description of Earth’soutermost layers in terms of a small number of largeStromatolites, like this one from Siberia, provide cluesabout the emergence of life on Earth. These patternedrock formations were built by the trapping and buildingof sediment particles by Earth’s early microbial commu-nities. Courtesy of Andrew Knoll, Harvard.