Life, then Oxygen, then Fire

image of firebreather by flickr user margaretmeloanThe Earth is on fire, but it was not always this way. Billions of years ago at the time of primordial life’s genesis the Earth lacked free oxygen in the atmosphere. The evolutionary rise of blue-green algae in the oceans led to the advent of oxygen. And so today every creature burns a little when it breaths. Oxygen is an extremely reactive element. From oxygen’s perspective the earth is a pile of fuel waiting to burn. Consider what a single spark would ravage with no human intervention. Cities are piles of neatly stacked kindling and forests are scattered matchsticks. So it is somewhat of an amazement the entire thing doesn’t just catch fire. Perhaps one day it will.


The power of fire is transformational: creative and destructive. Our ancestors took control of fire and took control of their environment. Yet, our bodies had already harnessed the biggest trick of fire—extracting its transformational energy—long ago when primordial organisms started breathing oxygen in the atmosphere. The quintessential energy releasing chemical reaction is oxidation. It is not quite fire. It is mere oxidation. When oxidization springs into full fledged fire, flames cast light into darkness. A flame is what you see when something burns, but oxidation is what occurs constantly to nearly every substance in an atmosphere of rich oxygen.


Read the rest of this piece I published over at 3 Quarks Daily…

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