A Grand Synthesis of Knowledge
Have you ever wondered: How do various scholarly discourses—cosmology, geology, anthropology, biology, history—fit together?
Big History answers that question by weaving a single story from a variety of scholarly disciplines. Like traditional creation stories told by the world's great religions and mythologies, Big History provides a map of our place in space and time. But it does so using the insights and knowledge of modern science, as synthesized by a renowned historian.
This is a story scholars have been able to tell only since the middle of the last century, thanks to the development of new dating techniques in the mid-1900s. As Professor Christian explains, this story will continue to grow and change as scientists and historians accumulate new knowledge about our shared past.
To tell this epic, Professor Christian organizes the history of creation into eight "thresholds." Each threshold marks a point in history when something truly new appeared and forms never before seen began to arise.
Starting with the first threshold, the creation of the Universe, Professor Christian traces the developments of new, more complex entities, including:
- The creation of the first stars (threshold 2)
- The origin of life (threshold 5)
- The development of the human species (threshold 6)
- The moment of modernity (threshold 8).
In the final lectures, you'll even gain a glimpse into the future as you review speculations offered by scientists about where our species, our world, and our Universe may be heading.
Getting the "Big" Picture
While you may have heard parts of this story before in courses on geology, history, anthropology, biology, cosmology, and other scholarly disciplines, Big History provides more than just a recap. This course will expand the scope of your perspective on the past and alter the way you think about history and the world around you.
"Because of the scale on which we look at the past, you should not expect to find in it many of the familiar details, names, and personalities that you'll find in other types of historical teaching and writing," explains Professor Christian. "For example, the French Revolution and the Renaissance will barely get a mention. They'll zoom past in a blur. You'll barely see them. Instead, what we're going to see are some less familiar aspects of the past. ... We'll be looking, above all, for the very large patterns, the shape of the past."
Thanks to this grand perspective, you'll uncover the remarkable parallels and connections among disciplines that remain to be explored when you view history on a large scale. How is the creation of stars like the building of cities? How is the big bang like the invention of agriculture? These are the kinds of connections you'll find yourself pondering as you undergo the grand shift in perspective afforded by Big History.
Along the way, you'll encounter intriguing tidbits that put the grand scale of this story in perspective, such as:
- The entire expanse of human civilization—5,000 years—makes up a mere 2 percent of the human experience.
- Approximately 98 percent of human history occurred before the invention of agriculture.
- All the matter we know of in the Universe is likely to be no more than 1 billionth of the actual matter that was originally created.
- The Earth's Moon was probably created by a collision between the young Earth and a Mars-sized protoplanet.
- At present, we cannot drill deeper than about 7 miles into the Earth, which is just 0.2% of the distance to the center (4,000 miles away).
- Between 1000 C.E. and 2000 C.E., human populations rose by a factor of 24.
- Traveling in a jet plane, it would take 5 million years to get from our solar system to the next nearest star.
The Story We Tell about Ourselves
"To understand ourselves," says Professor Christian, "we need to know the very large story, the largest story of all." And that, perhaps, is one of the greatest benefits of Big History: It provides a thought-provoking way to help us understand our own place within the Universe.
From humankind's place within the context of evolutionary history to our impact on the larger biosphere—both now and in our species' past—this course offers a broad yet nuanced examination of our place in creation. It also poses a profound question: Is it possible that our species is the only entity created by the Universe with the capacity to ponder its mysteries?
There is, perhaps, no more profound question to ask, and no better guide on this quest for understanding than Professor Christian. A pioneer in this approach to understanding history, Professor Christian has made big history his personal project for more than two decades. Working with experts in a variety of fields, he designed and taught some of the first big history courses, and has published widely on the topic.
Accept his invitation to get the big picture on Big History, and prepare for a journey through time and across space, from the first moments of existence to the distant reaches of the far future.
Course Lecture Titles
- 1. What Is Big History?
- 2. Moving across Multiple Scales
- 3. Simplicity and Complexity
- 4. Evidence and the Nature of Science
- 5. Threshold 1—Origins of Big Bang Cosmology
- 6. How Did Everything Begin?
- 7. Threshold 2—The First Stars and Galaxies
- 8. Threshold 3—Making Chemical Elements
- 9. Threshold 4—The Earth and the Solar System
- 10. The Early Earth—A Short History
- 11. Plate Tectonics and the Earth's Geography
- 12. Threshold 5—Life
- 13. Darwin and Natural Selection
- 14. The Evidence for Natural Selection
- 15. The Origins of Life
- 16. Life on Earth—Single-celled Organisms
- 17. Life on Earth—Multi-celled Organisms
- 18. Hominines
- 19. Evidence on Hominine Evolution
- 20. Threshold 6—What Makes Humans Different?
- 21. Homo sapiens—The First Humans
- 22. Paleolithic Lifeways
- 23. Change in the Paleolithic Era
- 24. Threshold 7—Agriculture
- 25. The Origins of Agriculture
- 26. The First Agrarian Societies
- 27. Power and Its Origins
- 28. Early Power Structures
- 29. From Villages to Cities
- 30. Sumer—The First Agrarian Civilization
- 31. Agrarian Civilizations in Other Regions
- 32. The World That Agrarian Civilizations Made
- 33. Long Trends—Expansion and State Power
- 34. Long Trends—Rates of Innovation
- 35. Long Trends—Disease and Malthusian Cycles
- 36. Comparing the World Zones
- 37. The Americas in the Later Agrarian Era
- 38. Threshold 8—The Modern Revolution
- 39. The Medieval Malthusian Cycle, 500–1350
- 40. The Early Modern Cycle, 1350–1700
- 41. Breakthrough—The Industrial Revolution
- 42. Spread of the Industrial Revolution to 1900
- 43. The 20th Century
- 44. The World That the Modern Revolution Made
- 45. Human History and the Biosphere
- 46. The Next 100 Years
- 47. The Next Millennium and the Remote Future
- 48. Big History—Humans in the Cosmos