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See Inside March 2010

Evolution of Minerals

Looking at the mineral kingdom through the lens of deep time leads to a startling conclusion: most mineral species owe their existence to life



Holly Lindem

Once upon a time there were no minerals anywhere in the cosmos. No solids of any kind could have formed, much less survived, in the superheated maelstrom following the big bang. It took half a million years before the first atoms—hydrogen, helium and a bit of lithium—emerged from the cauldron of creation. Millions more years passed while gravity coaxed these primordial gases into the first nebulas and then collapsed the nebulas into the first hot, dense, incandescent stars.

Only then, when some giant stars exploded to become the first supernovas, were all the other chemical elements synthesized and blasted into space. Only then, in the expanding, cooling gaseous stellar envelopes, could the first solid pieces of minerals have formed. But even then, most of the elements and their compounds were too rare and dispersed, or too volatile, to exist as anything but sporadic atoms and molecules among the newly minted gas and dust. By not forming crystals, with distinct chemical compositions and atoms organized in an orderly array of repeating units, such disordered material fails to qualify as minerals.

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