Big History: The Big Bang, Life on Earth

Big History

Big History: The Big Bang, Life on Earth, and the Rise of Humanity Big history survey the past at all possible scales, from conventional history to the much larger scales of biology and geology, to the universal scales of cosmology. It weaves a single story, stretching from the origins of the Universe to the present day and beyond, using accounts of the past developed within scholarly disciplines that are usually studied quite separately.

Big History

Big History: The Big Bang, Life on Earth

At first, the sheer scale of big history may seem unfamiliar—after all, historians usually focus on human societies, particularly those that had stated and left documentary records. Until the mid-20th century, “history,” in the sense of a chronologically structured account of the past, meant “human history” because we could only date those parts of the past for which we had written records.

Since World War II, however, new dating techniques have allowed us to determine absolute dates for events before the appearance of written records or even of human beings. Radiometric dating techniques, based on the regular breakdown of radioactive materials, were at the heart of this chronometric revolution.

These new chronometric techniques have transformed our ideas of the past, enabling us for the first time to construct a well-structured, scientifically rigorous history extending back to the origins of the Universe!

Telling this story is the daunting challenge taken up by big history; however, we have so much knowledge today that no single individual can be an expert on it all. Thus, you will not find in this course detailed analyses of the functioning of DNA, the causes of the French Revolution, the myths of ancient Greece, or the artistic innovations of the Renaissance—plenty of other courses offer more detailed accounts of such topics.

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What you will find is an attempt to weave stories told within many different historical disciplines into a larger story so that, instead of focusing on the details of each period or discipline, we can see the larger patterns that link all parts of the past.

I am a historian, so this course inevitably reacts with the expertise and biases of a historian. The same tale can also be told, with varying emphases, by astronomers and geologists. But at the heart of any such account is a core story, one that enables us to see the underlying unity of modern knowledge.

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