Long ago I became used to meeting someone new and having an exchange along the following lines:
And what do you do?
I’m a geologist
Oh, been on any interesting digs recently?
And, when it was determined that a geologist is not an archaeologist, I became used to the conversation, if it continued at all, changing direction. But it has always struck me as odd that we make these disciplinary distinctions – history, archaeology, geology – when, in reality, they are all looking at the sequence of past to present on our only home, Earth. In recent years there has been movement towards a satisfying blurring of the archaeology/geology divide, and a few instances can be found on this blog – understanding Mediterranean harbours and Roman construction for example. The same can be said of recognising the role of geology in history – see Snot’s Troglodytes and Wellington’s invasion of France; indeed, the examples from military history are endless, from Troy to the North African campaigns via Gettysburg.
But a properly joined-up story has still been difficult to find, despite the fact that every act of life’s drama – not least the extremely brief vignettes in which homo sapiens stars - has been staged amid the scenery and sound effects of geological processes. But in today’s paper, I read an article on the Big History project of David Christian, and decided to follow up a little. The initiative’s subtitle, “An Introduction to Everything,” sums up its ambition; it’s an heroic idea – to connect the last 13.7 billion years into one continuous story, into which astrophysics, geology, archaeology, and history are seamlessly merged. From the website:
Imagine exploring 13.7B years of history – from the Big Bang to modernity. Big history tells the complete story – with a goal of revealing common themes and patterns that help students better understand people, civilizations and our place in the universe….
All too often, students learn facts and skills but don't have the chance to connect them all. Big history links different areas of knowledge into one unified story. It’s a framework for learning about anything and everything. This unified story provides students with a deeper awareness of our past, hopefully better preparing them to help shape the future of our fragile planet.
By giving students tools to incite exploration and connect knowledge, our aim is to help young people develop key critical thinking skills that can prove vital in any discipline they decide to follow in their academic/professional lives.
Christian is a historian, originally specialising in Russia, and I can’t help but be impressed by the fact that one of his many publications is a history of vodka. And, whatever one’s views on Bill Gates, it’s impressive that the entire initiative is receiving his ongoing – and undoubtedly crucial - support.
I will readily admit that this is the kind of initiative that I’m a sucker for, an educational program that links stuff together into a big story, and does so in a provocative way. I have only just begun poking around its many facets, but I would suggest listening to Christian’s TED talk and then exploring the project website (which, I must say, could benefit from a slightly more rigorous level of proofreading), together with its international association version. It’s not perfect, but then no project with this scale of aspiration and scope would ever be; but I’m impressed, and would be most interested in hearing comments and your views. It also strikes me that it’s an ideal program into which the Big Ideas of the Earth Science Literacy Initiative could be integrated.
And, as a postscript, I have to mention that Walter Alvarez, the Berkeley geologist and (somewhat controversial) pioneer of the idea of the impact-caused demise of the dinosaurs, is one of the “founders” of Big History – he was already teaching a course with that title since 2006. If you go to his article on “A Geologial [sic] Perspective on Big History,” you will find the following:
To be more quantitative, if we ask how many individual people will be born into the next global generation, the answer is something like a billion, about 109. To give you a graphic idea of this number, a billion grains of fine sand is a double handful. If we calculate how many different individuals might possibly be born in the next global generation, considering the number of women's eggs available, and the number of sperm that might fertilize them, the answer is around 1024, and that number of grains of sand would fill the Grand Canyon!