A History of Our World in 18 Minutes

…And he doesn’t even talk especially fast.

One of the helpful things about history is the way it gives us perspective on our own lives. Issues that we think are new or unique to our day have usually appeared before in some form or other. History helps us see the large trends rather than getting lost in the day-to-day details of current events.

“Big History” takes this even further. As David Christian’s talk demonstrates, the idea of Big History is to step way back and look at the broad scope of events in terms of various time scales… including the largest time scale of all. Not only is it a great way to induce awe, but it will also change and deepen the way you look at not only current events, but history itself.

The idea isn’t entirely new. Numerous writers have used clever illustrations to help us imagine vast time scales. One that makes intuitive sense to me where I live comes from The Nature of Nebraska, in which University of Nebraska ornithologist Paul Johnsgard uses Interstate 80 across Nebraska (often considered one of the most boring and interminable drives on in the Interstate system, though I think Nebraska has nothing on west Texas in that respect) as a natural history timeline of the past 450 million years. One mile equals a million years. He imagines mostly corals, sponges, and mollusks in Omaha at the eastern end of the state, dinosaurs appearing in Cozad, about two-thirds of the way across, and peaking around Ogallala at the edge of the Panhandle. Mammals don’t appear until Sidney, deep in the Panhandle, and the first humans reach present-day Nebraska about 75 feet from the Wyoming state line, with Columbus arriving three feet from the state line.

With Johnsgard’s scale in mind, you can take a 450 million year trip across Nebraska, which is about what the drive will feel like anyway.

However, Big History isn’t just about huge time scales — that’s only the starting point, the precondition. What’s important is such scales force you to look at only the largest trends and the most fundamental questions, and that’s where Big History becomes especially interesting. As David Christian says, “If you want to know about humanity, you have to ask about the whole universe.” A good example is the opening question in his talk above, “How does the universe generate complexity?” Why doesn’t it behave like the scrambled egg in the video, going from complexity to mush? Isn’t that what the Second Law of Thermodynamics predicts?

Christian is involved in The Big History Project, which is a free, online social studies course designed for secondary schools. An open, public version of the course is launching soon.

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