Today let’s talk about big history (part 2 tomorrow).

I was introduced to the concept of big history through a Teaching Company course entitled “Big History: the Big Bang, Life on Earth and the Rise of Humanity”. The course was taught by Prof. David Christian of San Diego State University who is also the author of a book called “Maps of Time” which introduces the same concepts. I highly recommend the course.

What is big history? Basically it’s a story of the history of earth, going back to the Big Bang and bringing the story forward to the present and into the near future. Most history courses that we took in school, focused on human history, primarily those major events for which we have written records. Big history on the other hand, draws from many sources study. These include cosmology, biology, geology, human history, and more. Hence big history takes a very high-level approach from which we can draw very big trends on the direction of Earth’s evolution.

Christian, not only tells the “story” of big history but also explains how we “know” the story. He gives concise descriptions of how science has determined the story to be our best picture how we got to where we are. If you’re interested in the “how” science knows this story, you may want to listen to Christians course. I want to briefly run through the story at a very, very high-level.

Big history begins a millisecond after the big bang. That’s interesting in the fact that science offers no answers for what might have been in existence before the Big Bang or why the Big Bang occurred. Science simply says that the best evidence shows that there was a Big Bang and when it happened (approximately 14,000,000,000 years ago).

Science says that all matter was compressed into a very small area and in some event caused it to explode out in all directions very quickly. One of the interesting things about big history, is that it paints a picture of things “emerging” at just the right time and at just the right way for the big history story to unfold. Although the story shows a picture of many, many emergent properties, there are major ones which Christian labels “thresholds”. The Big Bang was the first threshold.

Science says that all of the forces that we now understand that control the matter within the universe (gravity, electromagnetic forces, etc.) existed right after the Big Bang. Again, they could’ve existed before the Big Bang but science does not go back that far. The Big Bang created a primordial soup of matter that was lumpy. If the distribution of matter had been totally even there might not have been any further evolution. However, the lumpiness, combined with gravity began to grow the “lumps” into larger and larger forms. The first forms were the elements of hydrogen and helium. Eventually this process created the first stars and galaxies as gravity brought the elements into larger and larger and hotter and hotter masses. The emergence of stars is Christian’s second threshold.

Within the process of stars heating up, the first basic elements beyond hydrogen and helium were created. Science says that the process of stars expanding and contracting through their lifecycle created all of the elements that we know. The heavier elements were made in the death throes of stars. The creation of chemical elements is Christian’s third emergent threshold.

As these elements floated around in space. Once again gravity brought them together in the form of planets, asteroids, and other space bodies. The gravitational field of stars, over time, combined with the gravity contained within the larger lumps of elements themselves created over a long time the planets and their orbits. The creation of the earth and the solar system was Christian’s forth emergent threshold.

Tomorrow we will bring “big history” forward and see how it helps us to put ourselves into perspective….(Link to Part Two)

Mark

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