A Greek statesman who lived in the sixth century B.C. put forward the first explanation, shorn of theological trappings, that captured the essence of all things living and inanimate. Thales of Miletus noticed that water could exist as a liquid, gas or solid and posited that it was the fundamental constituent of matter from which the earth’s denizens—men, goats, flowers, rocks, and whatnot—somehow sprang forth.

As with all natural philosophy (a pursuit now known as science), Thales’ observation immediately provoked an argument. Anaximander, a disciple of Thales (today what would be called a graduate student), asked how water could be the single basic element if rock, sand and other substances appeared to be devoid of moisture.

The bickering about beginnings and the nature of our existence has not ceased in ensuing millennia, although Thales’ aqueous cosmology persists only as a passing citation in histories of philosophy and science. A definitive answer to the identity of the most basic ingredient of matter—and how it could ultimately lead to a world populated by iPhones and reruns of American Idol—still eludes today’s natural philosophers.

In early April a colloquy of 70 leading scientists assembled at Arizona State University to launch an Origins Initiative to ponder such questions as whether infinitesimal, stringlike particles may be candidates as the latest substitute for Thales’ vision of a wet world. An urge to deduce beginnings energizes the entire scientific endeavor—and of course that extends into the realm of biology. Appropriately, this year’s 150th anniversary of the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species coincides with a significant advance toward the milestone of demonstrating how life sprang from inanimate matter. A British team of chemists showed that one of the basic building blocks of life could form spontaneously from a warm soup of organic chemicals.

The immediacy of these themes is why this single-topic issue of Scientific American is devoted to origins in physics, chemistry, biology and technology. In the following pages, a physicist grapples with the overarching question of how the universe began. A chemist addresses possible ways in which life first started, and a biologist takes on what has made the human mind different from that of any other animal’s. Then a historian of technology contemplates the first computer, perhaps the most extraordinary invention of the human mind. A final section provides brief chronicles of the inception of dozens of physical and biological phenomena, in addition to a series of remarkable human inventions.

Whether related to rainbows, antibiotics or paper money, beginnings—and the stories they generate—serve as an endless source of fascination about the world around us.

More Origins Coverage

Starter Menu--The Origins of the Origins Issue
Acting Editor in Chief Mariette DiChristina explains the September 2009 issue of Scientific American
Origins: The Start of Everything
Where do rainbows come from? What about flying cars, love and LSD?
The Origin of the Universe
Cosmologists are closing in on the ultimate processes that created and shaped the universe
The Origin of Life on Earth
Fresh clues hint at how the first living organisms arose from inanimate matter
The Origin of the Mind
The first step in figuring out how the human mind arose is determining what distinguishes our mental processes from those of other creatures
The Origin of Computing
The information age began with the realization that machines could emulate the power of minds

Online Exclusives

Introducing the September issue of Scientific American  
The Origin of Scientific American
A week of origins, starting with our own back in the 19th century
The Origin of Cubicles and the Open-Plan Office
Wall-free office spaces did not quite work out the way their utopian inventors intended
The Origin of Fruit Ripening
A gaseous plant hormone turns off anti-ripening genes, enabling fruit to mellow--and taste good
The Origin of the Computer Mouse
Now an endangered species, it was crucial to the development of personal computing and the Internet  
The Origin of Human Malaria
New data indicates that Homo sapiens picked up the malaria parasite from chimpanzees
The Science of Origins: Studies Across All Disciplines
A first-of-it-kind symposium on origins brought together 80 scientists to discuss and collaborate on these intriguing puzzles.
The Origin of Hatred
Brain scans reveal how hate begins to emerge--and it's not too far from love
The Origin of Oxygen in Earth's Atmosphere
The breathable air we enjoy today originated from tiny organisms, although the details remain lost in geologic time
The Origin of Wine
Imbibing the liquid of fermented fruit may have had its start in medicinal traditions
The Origin of Dogs
Fido's cousins may be Eurasian wolves, but new findings complicate the details of domestication
The Origin of Zero
Much ado about nothing: First a placeholder and then a full-fledged number, zero had many inventors
The Origin of Rubber Boots
Galoshes seem to have come from a little fire, Indians' boredom and Charles Goodyear's luck

Note: This article was originally printed with the title, "In the Beginning."