You may remember the Total Perspective Vortex from the Hitchhiker’s Guide books by Douglas Adams. The vortex gave its unfortunate occupant a realistic view of his or her place in the context of the entire cosmos, a humbling vision that drove the victim mad. I have to say that as I learn more and more about our proper place in the grand scheme of things, I become exhilarated rather than distressed. Gaining greater perspective is a thrill.
The emerging interdisciplinary field of big history seeks to weave together all we know of the history of the universe and everything in it and to teach this coherent big picture. Geologist Walter Alvarez was one of the co-discoverers of a significant event in Earth’s history, the extinction of the dinosaurs after an asteroid impact, that had a tremendous effect on the subsequent history of the planet. He began teaching a big history course at Berkeley a few years ago, and he came to IU last week to talk about big history, which he described as a bridge between science and the humanities.
One of the problems, when you teach big history, is that creatures who have a maximum lifespan of about a century (and generally don’t last even that long) have a hard time grasping the time scales involved. Or as Carl Sagan put it:
Part of the resistance to Darwin and Wallace derives from our difficulty in imagining the passage of millennia, much less the aeons. What does seventy million years mean to beings who live only one-millionth as long? We are like butterflies who flutter for a day and think it is forever.
To address this problem, one of Alvarez’s students, Roland Saekow, wanted to find a way to synthesize all of the timelines on the handouts for the big history course into a single zoomable presentation. He and Alvarez worked on the problem, and eventually their project grew into the ChronoZoom Project. At the website, you can get an overview of all the timelines and then zoom in a particular time period. Dots scattered about the timelines contain relevant images, video, and other embedded material. A couple of tours are also available. The project is in beta, but already it’s enough to light up the mind. It will be interesting to watch it develop and see how the timelines fill up with information.
In his talk, Alvarez focused on two concepts in big history: little big history and contingency. A little big history covers a single place or thing in light of all the timelines we have: cosmic, geological, evolutionary. The basic idea is that you can look at just about anything in terms of “How did this come to be?” and uncover a story in deep time. He offered a fascinating glimpse of this approach with a sketch of what a little big history of Spain (where his family came from) might look like.
One cool thing about this approach is that it shows you the connections between the different fields of academic study: for example, how the geological factors that shaped Spain’s high, dry interior are connected to the presence of so many words of Spanish origin in American cowboy lingo (the interior was not suitable for agriculture but was good for herding livestock, so the Spanish already had experience that was useful when they came to the American west, and that fact lingers in the language). It also gives people a much better sense of the shape of the cosmos and of existence, the time spans involved, and incredible complexity of cause and effect. This hard-won knowledge of who and where and when we are, at least in the broadest outlines, is one of the most valuable birthrights of every human, in my opinion.
An example of this complexity is the idea of contingency, that the facts that seem so solid to us in hindsight actually emerged from a confusing matrix of possibilities. The topic of contingency in history is vast, and I’m sure everyone has personal examples. Here’s one of mine: In his early 20s, my father went to a bank to apply for a job, but the woman he needed to talk to in the personnel department was out having lunch, so he went to another company where a friend of his worked and applied there. He got the job, and that’s how he met my mother. If the person at the bank hadn’t been out to lunch when he came by, I probably wouldn’t be here (or my kids, or the grandchild about to be born).
On a bigger scale, as Alvarez pointed out, that asteroid that hit Earth had about a seven-minute window of opportunity, which is not much out of the 4.5 billion year history of the solar system, especially considering the magnitude of the changes it caused. I think the real point of understanding contingencies, although Alvarez didn’t mention this, is that it clarifies the haphazard nature of existence. There is no plan. The only meaning is the one we supply. Events are a complex web that we understand only incompletely, and the stories we impose upon them are the best we can do with limited facts. They could have been different.
Maybe I shouldn’t have dismissed the Total Perspective Vortex so quickly; there is a certain terror involved sometimes in seeing one’s own small life in the context of the big picture. However, I’ll leave you with these inspiring words from Mountains of the Mind, by Robert Macfarlane:
Contemplating the immensities of deep time, you face, in a way that is both exquisite and horrifying, the total collapse of your present, compacted to nothingness by the pressures of pasts and futures too extensive to envisage. And it is a physical as well as a cerebral horror, for to acknowledge that the hard rock of a mountain is vulnerable to the attrition of time is of necessity to reflect on the appalling transience of the human body.
Yet there is also something curiously exhilarating about the contemplation of deep time. True, you learn yourself to be a blip in the larger projects of the universe. But you are also rewarded with the realization that you do exist—as unlikely as it may seem, you do exist.
In addition to the ChronoZoom page, there are a few books about big history.
This one is by David Christian, who is more or less the founder of the field:
Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History, With a New Preface (California World History Library).
Here’s one where Christian zooms in on human history: This Fleeting World: A Short History of Humanity.
Here’s a competing popular book of big history (the reviews are mixed, and I haven’t read it): Big History: From the Big Bang to the Present, by Cynthia Stokes Brown.
And finally, a scholarly look at not just the big history of the universe but big history as a field: Big History and the Future of Humanity, by Fred Spier.