07/01/2014 07:38 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Recollections of the Big Bang

When we recollect something, we tap into stored data in our brains to recreate some distant event in our past. This also includes our origin in the Big Bang!


We were all present at the Big Bang. Science helps us recover this memory.

If we look into this ability to recall memories in more detail, neurophysiologists who study how the brain actually accomplishes this trick often think in terms of "reconstructive memory recall." This is a form of recall that works by storing abstract features that are then used to construct the memory during recall. So armed with scientific research, let's play with this idea a bit!

About 13.8 billion years ago, the hydrogen in my body emerged from the Big Bang. It spent eons just hanging around in the rapidly expanding and cooling universe. As stars became supernovae, the other elements in my body were forged and ejected into space, until 4.6 billion years ago, when some of these atoms found themselves incorporated into the organized chaos of the formation of our solar system, and the formation of our own planet, Earth.

For billions of years more, the atoms in my body were exchanged between the many chemical reactions in the atmosphere and on the surface of Earth, until they entered the nascent biosphere. From 600 million years ago until 5 million years ago, they cycled between many organisms as food, body and substance, or as the ground and oceans through which these organisms moved. The trillions upon trillions of atoms in my body spread throughout the biosphere; it's virtually guaranteed that at least a few of these particles were breathed in by tyrannosaurs, Pharaoh Tutankhamun, or Sir Isaac Newton. My ancient atoms have definitely gotten around in this universe!

Some of my atoms were carried by the first humans to evolve in the African savannah over 3 million years ago. About 55,000 years ago a group of individuals left the Ethiopia region and migrated northwards to the Middle East. A mutation in one of these individuals led to the emergence of haplogroup F (M89), which is now carried by over 90 percent of all males in the world. By 30,000 years ago a second mutation led to the IJ haplogroup, which expanded throughout central Europe as the Cro Magnons and replaced the older Neanderthal lineage from an earlier out-of-Africa migration.

Between 20,000 and 25,000 years ago the ice returned to northern Europe, and a severe genetic bottleneck occurred. A single man was born with a mutation that led to the I haplogroup. This group, swelling in numbers, collected in the Northern Greece/Yugoslavia region, where conditions remained habitable for these hunter-gatherers as the menacing glaciers advanced southwards. Then, about 10,000 to 12,000 years ago, glacier melting allowed Neolithic farmers to recolonize central and northern Europe and eventually move farther north, into lower Sweden and Norway. Unlike the cave painters and artisans who had camped out in Iberia and the European steppes, the haplogroup-I people were stone cutters who crafted Venus figures for fertility. They later built Stonehenge and other monuments in England and Scandinavia. As their settlements in Sweden and Norway prospered during the Nordic Bronze Age (1700 B.C. to 500 B.C.), they eventually emerged into history as the Vikings between 700 and 1100 A.D. and carved stone monuments filled with runes to mark their many triumphs and tell their sagas of conquest and exploration.

My recollection of these ancient migrations is getting better and better every year as the genetic code is cracked and more groups of the human family begin to add to this story. It is a story not of named individuals but of anonymous masses of humanity and genes flowing through time, for which only the names of major historical figures in each civilization have been passed forward to us in time. For my ancestry, this naming of individuals begins with the great Viking chieftains and chroniclers and continues to the 16th century and beyond. But finally, after 13.8 billion years, I at last encounter my oldest named relative.

Andreas Knopken (1468-1539) was the rector of St. Peters Church in Riga, Latvia, and an outspoken Protestant Reformer. His granddaughter, Barbara Heironymdatter Knoph (1555-1586), married Arnold de Fine von Enden (1530-1586), who was the organist and choral conductor in the court of King Christian III and King Frederick II of Denmark. Five generations later his great-great-great-grandchild, church organist Matthias Ulric Gadd (1756-1837), became the father of organist Britta Ulrica Gadd (1780-1868), the wife of Magnus Juhlin (1782-1868). This husband-and-wife team of church organists in Angelstad, Sweden, had 11 children, including David Juhlin (1807-1876), who became the organist at the Tutaryd church, along with his wife, Britta Maria Fogelberg (1811-1896). Due to the limited number of openings, David's other children had to choose other occupations. David's son, my great-grandfather, David Reinhold Juhlin (1835-1898), entered the cloth-dying trade and became very good at it. This skill was passed on to his son, David Konrad Juhlin (1870-1927), my grandfather, and to two of my Uncles. One of my aunts was an actress and violinist. My mother, Rosa, enjoyed painting and being a member of the Carmel Gold Coast Players, a radio-theater group, during the 1940s. My niece, Lena Hall, recently won a Tony Award for her role in Hedwig and the Angry Inch.

So in my recollections I can weave a rich story of events that led to the atoms that make up the substance of the particular person I am today. I can trace the flow of information that makes me a specific kind of human rather than a fish or an elephant. I can uncover the migrations of my nameless ancestors in the genes I now carry. I can fill in the great span of events since the 1500s and find actual named people who contributed their genes and predispositions to my own. And through the many written family chronicles and church records, I at last understand why the arts and sciences run so strongly through my thought-work today.