Everything is connected when you view it in the context of ... well, everything. Welcome to Big History.
SALT. It underpins civilisation in more ways than you have ever imagined. It has launched wars, built monuments and sparked revolutions.
It’s even the substance that makes up our thoughts – or so Big History, a new TV series which takes the small things in life and places them within the context of everything, will tell you.
If life is a piece of fabric, Big History shows you how each thread is interconnected; how individual events are woven through space and time into one continuous spread of historical perspective, in which everyone and everything plays a part.
There are no national boundaries in the story of humanity, we all exist because the same, multiple events converged to create the present, our present.
This is the realisation David Christian had back in the 1980s, and he formalised this approach to teaching history.
A scholar of Russian and Soviet Union history at the time, he says it began as an attempt to develop a college course to teach the history of humanity.
“Then I realised I would have to study how humans evolved, and how primates evolved – and that meant studying biology and evolution,” he says.
One thing led to another.
To understand the forces that guide biological evolution, you have to understand the changing and evolving conditions of the planet.
“And that meant I would have to understand how the Earth formed, and then the Solar System, and so on. Eventually I realised that the story had a beginning in the Big Bang.”
Christian realised this seemed crazy, learning the history of everything in order to tell the story of humanity.
“But then I thought, OK. If teaching the history of humanity means teaching the history of the universe, let’s have a go.”
Connecting the dots
You may be sceptical.
You might be thinking, but of course you’ve heard about the Big Bang, and you’re familiar with evolution, and you’re aware of how early agriculture played an important role in kick-starting organised society.
But the point of Big History is that these bites of information come to us independent of one another.
And though it would be true to say the Big History approach to understanding life, the universe and everything isn’t anything new, Christian’s course gave it a name.
He gave it structure and made it accessible.
You don’t have to be a widely-read scholar voraciously consuming books on astronomy, geology, physics, anthropology and geography before you can finally bask in the wonder and grandeur of how everything is interconnected.
That’s because Christian did all that reading, and strung together a summary of its most poignant points in a digestible and enlightening format for you.
“I would say that almost everyone who has done a Big History course has found it exciting and illuminating.
“I kept teaching because of the reaction of my students, and their sense of excitement, about how Big History could give them utterly new insights.”
One such student was Bill Gates.
Christian started teaching his courses in universities during the early 2000s, and one day in 2011, he presented an 18-minute summary of the history of the universe at a TED talk.
Gates, a widely known philanthropist and the co-founder of Microsoft Corp, was sitting in the audience, and today, he says it’s his favourite course of all time.
“When I first took Big History, I felt like I knew about a lot of the things already. A bit about biology, a bit about physics, a bit about how civilisations had more specialised roles, how populations have grown over time ... but I’d never seen it all put together,” he says in a video posted on the website course.bighistory
Big History, however, made it all make sense, and made Gates wish he’d come across such a thing in college.
So he paired up with Christian and decided to make sure kids today would.
Together, the two launched the Big History Project, bringing the course to schools.
Today, Big History courses have been launched in 80 schools in the United States, 35 in Australia, and also a few in the Netherlands, South Korea and Scotland.
They expect these numbers to at least double in 2014, which shouldn’t be too hard, because the course is now available online.
Anyone can do it, or get guidance on how to adapt the syllabus for their own schools.
“And that’s just three years since we started,” says Christian.
Putting it in perspective
Big History starts out with the Big Bang.
Stars light up, new chemical elements are formed, then single-celled life appears on Earth.
Later, much much later, humans along, bringing with them collective learning, agriculture and the modern revolution; leaving you, in turn, to ponder what the future holds.
Christian thinks communicating the historical context of how we and everything around us came to be is really important.
“People are so used to the idea that knowledge comes in specialised packages that are disconnected (from) each other. At present we teach students in silos.
“A bit of language, a bit of maths, a bit of physics, a bit of history.
“We never help them see that all these forms of knowledge are linked.
“And if you cannot see the links, you cannot see the whole picture, and you cannot see knowledge as meaningful.”
Big History, he says, shows that there is a unified, coherent story of the history of the universe which links together through all these different disciplines.
It shows how, when understood together, each discipline is deeply meaningful.
The point, however, is what people do with their learning.
Christian believes that students need a more rounded understanding of our world to solve today’s problems.
The problem with how we do things now is that, because we learn in silos, we tend to think in silos.
“We don’t think of the world as a whole; we think, instead, of this city, or that nation.
“Yet many of the problems we face today, such as climate change, can no longer be solved city by city, or even country by country.”
Different angles and a holistic perspective are needed in problem solving, and students trained in Big History will do that naturally, Christian says.
But changing the current education paradigm is likely to be a challenge because understandably, governments tend to want their schools to teach national histories.
Christian, however, hopes that eventually more educators will come around, and want Big History incorporated into national educational curricula.
Just imagine a world where kids have grown up being taught about life from a transnational and “trans-disciplinary” perspective, who are able to think in a more unified and coherent way; and see humanity not as a series of conflicting tribes, but as a single community that faces the same basic problems.
Whatever the future holds for Big History, a new TV series of the same name – from the creators of The Universe and Life After People – airs tonight.
Produced in conjunction with Bill Gates’ Big History Project, and featuring Christian as one of its many “talking heads”, the show is peppered with quirky gems of knowledge.
For example, did you know that every time we make a call we are connected to explosions from the Big Bang, through a rare and mysterious element called tantalum, which originated then and is still used in trace amounts in every phone today?
Or that bat poop and trees helped shaped the history of weapons?
The 17-episode series delves into a variety of topics, from the wonders of salt to how horses have changed the way we speak, what we wear, and set the hidden limit for the size of our most massive empires.
It covers megastructures, and how they echo a basic principle embedded in the very structure of the universe.
It also looks at brains, gravity, meteors, DNA, supernovas, water and a variety of other things you never realised were so mind-boggling, culminating in a two-hour finale, The Big History Of Everything, on May 20.
Here, everything is linked.
The episode criss-crosses billions of years (to give you a rough comprehension of scale, it would take you roughly 400 years just to count up to 13.7 billion) and weaves together how science and history converged in an epic series of improbable events that gave rise to mankind.
Christian was not deeply involved in the creation of the series, although its entire premise is influenced by his courses.
But he is immensely proud of how far Big History has come: “I believe strongly that Big History has a lot to contribute to our future.”
> Big History premieres at 8pm tonight on History (Astro Ch 555 / HD Ch 575).