Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Paying attention to Big History

I made a suggestion about presenting a course focusing on Big History for members of the Western Interior Paleontological Society (W.I.P.S., for short). The organization’s president elect liked the idea, so it may become a reality in April of 2012.

What is Big History, you might reasonably ask?

In 2004, David Christian wrote MAPS OF TIME, An Introduction to Big History. He impressed me with his thesis that we need a “mythology” for the 21st century reflecting what we know about the Big Picture: “Life, the Universe, and Everything,” as Douglas Adams described it in the Hitch-Hiker’s SF trilogy. Religion often tackles this Big Picture History, but relies on the pronouncements of prophets and holy literature. Science relies on testing ideas against the real world. Some things humans would like to know, are very hard, if not impossible to test, but science continues to broaden the kinds of things that can be successfully examined.

Both preachers and scientists learn to tell good stories, because nobody can resist them. We learned to learn by telling stories around campfires. What we don’t know, we make up—all in the interest of telling a good story. The resulting “myth” provides a necessary framework for action—for getting on with things while honoring the grand beauties of existence and trying to understand the inexplicable.

Over the last several hundred years, science has revealed many secrets that formerly fell into the inexplicable category. Ignorance, of course, is always a whale teasing the self-absorbed, knowledgeable mouse of human understanding. So, even though scientific laws and theories are empirically based and testable, and have produced a monolithic framework of understanding that would have dazzled our ancestors, they still fall far short of explaining everything. The shear volume and complexity of scientific discovery tends to discourage close examination, hence the need for a short course describing Life the Universe and Everything as science currently understands it.

Christian rightly calls this summary a form of mythology, although scientists might dispute the term, and laymen shouldn’t interpret it as a fanciful tale with no basis in fact. A course on Big History simply delivers a Reader’s Digest version of what we know, suitable for ipads, briefcases, and short term memory. We can then go about building lives, careers, and philosophies for ourselves. Knowledge of Big History may help us and our descendants extend history a bit longer for H. sapiens—a species sometimes prone to embrace ignorance, forget the errors of the past, and accept hearsay as fact.

From the Big Bang to the Blogosphere will cover the following topics:

• Why do we need the perspective of Big History?

            • The first 300,000 years: Primary forces & the organization of matter

            • Stars, galaxies, and the explosive birth of the elements

            • Jogging across the Football Fields of Deep Time

            • Mammal Time: Cenozoic adjustments to disaster and change

            • Several ways to be human & the triumph of H. sapiens

            • Summary, synthesis, & sharing resources

            • The origins of agriculture

            • Cities, states, & civilizations

            • Chance & climate as shaping forces in human history

            • Modern history at a glance & a look at how it could have been different

            • Comparing references & resources

            • The future of Gaia under human stewardship (or not)

            • Summary, synthesis, and evaluation

I hope to spread this short course over two Saturdays, providing lots of cool timelines, references, and mind-blowing metaphors to help clarify more obtuse points of science. My only claim to competence teaching this course is a lifetime of reading, writing, and speculating on science and the human condition. I expect any students to help keep me honest and surprised. With just a little luck, it could be a lot of fun.

Stay tuned for details.

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