I first heard about Big History around a year ago and it really caught my imagination. Big History is a new way of looking at the subject, which attempts to examine history on a large scale across long time frames through a multi-disciplinary approach. The starting point is the origins of the Universe some 13.5 billion years ago. And it continues with the creation of stars, planets, including our own Earth. Finally it charts the evolution of life on Earth and the appearance of humans, which is nearly halfway through the course. In fact really humans should appear much later in the course but it would probably be too much of a blow to our egos.
I really like the multi-disciplinary approach. It draws on such fields as anthropology, archaeology, astronomy, biology, climatology, cosmology, geology natural history. You may find this too broad but I really enjoy this big sweep. Too often we compartmentalise things and we fail to see the interconnectedness of events. To limit history to the written word is a mistake; Big History makes use of all possible time scales – not just those used in traditional history. The biological, geological and cosmological time frames give us a much deeper understanding our place within the Universe and enable us to see the underlying unity of modern knowledge
As an academic discipline Big History began in the late 1980s. One of the pioneers was David Christian, who started an experimental course with help from scientific colleagues. He rather frivolously coined the term Big History but it stuck. Christian now teaches at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia. The discipline was helped by some important breakthroughs that enabled scientists to date the origins of the universe. By using Radiometric dating techniques, scientists can construct a coherent and rigorous scientific explanation going right back to the Big Bang.
In order to explain Professor Christian uses eight thresholds, events which were real turning points:
Threshold 1—Origins of Big Bang Cosmology
Threshold 2—The First Stars and Galaxies
Threshold 3—Making Chemical Elements
Threshold 4—The Earth and the Solar System
Threshold 6—What Makes Humans Different?
Threshold 8—The Modern Revolution
This gives you a good idea of the vast time scale of the course – events like The French Revolution hardly get a look in. Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything touches on many of the themes in Big History. If you want to a more academic approach into the subject, Professor David Christian has a book called Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History. There is a problem with this material – it can overwhelm you. I have big problems getting a handle on quantum mechanics or superstring theory; I was one of those people who hated science at school. But like the aforementioned Bryson I have now developed a keen interest in science. I know it’s not always possible to understand everything but you can still get some appreciation of the forces that brought us here.