Meet the man who can explain the first 3 billion years of life on our planet

Paleontologist Andrew Knoll, pictured here in Siberia, has been awarded the Crafoord Prize for Geosciences.

(CNN)Rocks, cliff faces, quarries gouged in earth. Not much for most of us to look at, but for paleontologist Andrew Knoll, they are radiant with meaning, telling a story he says is far grander and stuffed with more plot twists than any Hollywood blockbuster.

That tale is Earth's history -- how the planet went from a rock covered in magma oceans buffeted by comets and meteors to a green and blue orb teeming with life. Between those inhospitable beginnings and now, continents formed and were torn apart, mountain ranges appeared and disappeared, ice caps spread and receded. These are the lost worlds that Knoll has explored and shed light on.
"Having your nose up against the rocks. There's no substitute. If you're interested in the history of this planet, the library is rocks," said Knoll, who is the Fisher Professor of Natural History at Harvard University.
    The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences on Monday will award Knoll the prestigious Crafoord Prize, considered a complement -- and for some winners, a precursor to -- a Nobel prize.
      The honor is for his work on illuminating the first 3 billion years of Earth's history, determining the ages of layers of bedrock, discovering tiny organisms from the depths of time that are the infinitesimal ancestors of every one of us and explaining the world's worst mass extinction.
        "He really tries to integrate all the available data -- the geological, the biological and the chemical and puts things in perspective. He's not just a person that looks at a fossil and says, 'Oh, this is so and so and it came from this time period,'" said Daniel Conley, a biogeochemistry professor in the department of geology at Lund University in Sweden.
        "He is able to make this holistic picture, understand why the fossil is there and the context of everything that's going on at the time," said Conley, who is a member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences and the committee for the Crafoord Prize in Geosciences.
          It's not necessarily the glamorous side of paleontology -- Knoll mostly finds and examines microfossils only visible with a microscope, not towering skeletons of extinct giants that take center stage in museum atriums. But how he has pieced together the story of Earth's birth and life's earliest history has revolutionized the field.
          "Dinosaurs are (a) very, very small part of the record in terms of fossils and in terms of time in which they exist. They're extraordinary. I'm on board with that. But they are a small part of a much, much, much larger story," Knoll, 70, said.
          Knoll has discovered the most feasible explanation for Earth's worst mass extinction.

          The 'boring' billion years

          Our familiar world of complex animals began to take shape beginning about 540 million years ago, in what's known as the Cambrian explosion. But Knoll's discovery of microscopic fossils of bacteria-like organisms, single-celled protozoans and algae that date back as far as 3 billion years -- and the environment they emerged in -- have shown that the evolutionary path to our modern animal and plant life began much earlier.
          "He was able to make these discoveries that there was life before we thought," Conley said.
          Knoll put it this way: "We live on a microbial planet. Animals are really the icing on evolution's cake, but bacteria are the cake."
          Knoll also first described what is sometimes known as the "boring billion" -- a period in Earth's history around 1.8 billion to 800 million years ago when nothing much appeared to happen biologically or climatically. Nonetheless, he said it was a crucial period that paved the way for life as we know it.
          "Our work and that of others, demonstrates that this is when the eukaryotic cell came of age -- all of the molecular and cell biology that eventually made animals possible, was hammered out during this boring billion," Knoll said.
          Knoll said he first became mesmerized by fossils he found growing up in Pennsylvania Dutch Country in the foothills of the Appalachians.
          "I can remember the feeling when I was 12 years old and just the idea that you'd break this rock open and you'd see something that no human being has ever seen."
          "That was a wonderful, wonderful thought, and I still get excited if I discover something or have an idea that no one else has had."
          He's also applied his knowledge of the early evolution of Earth to Mars, interpreting data and images sent back by the Mars rover Opportunity, which was active on the red planet's surface from 2004 to 2018.
          Knoll, pictured here in Newfoundland, has conducted fieldwork all around the world.

          Carbon cycle

          For Shuhai Xiao, a professor of geobiology at Virginia Tech who was a doctoral student under Knoll in the 1990s, it's his former adviser's work on Earth's carbon cycle -- and how it has played an essential role in the shifting cycles of the planet's history -- that has been most influential.
          Knoll, he said, was one of the first people to use carbon isotopes to understand how much organic carbon was preserved in rock and, as a consequence, understand how much carbon dioxide (CO2) and oxygen was in the atmosphere at any given time period.
          "That opened the floodgates. Today we take it for granted and a lot of people use carbon isotopes to talk about the paleo environment. But that was 1986, and not many people even did this kind of analysis let alone applying it to understand Earth's history," said Xiao, who spent many hours with Knoll on long train journeys in China, traveling to fossil sites.
          "When I was first in the field with him, I was very impressed. He'd get the head lens on and it was almost like he was kissing the rock, he got so close."