Thursday, March 07, 2013

Big History

This is the history of the universe as we understand it now. It goes from cosmology to astronomy to geology and biology before making it to man. It is slow moving, spending a lot of time just talking about the scale. Perhaps this speed is to emphasize the vastness of the timeframe that is being discussed. (Though it does slow the narrative.)

The descriptions of time periods millions and billions of years ago are described as they are currently known today. The lectures spend plenty of time detailing the discoverers and discoveries. Some of the controversies and the evolutions of views are also given for these. The end result is a "popular" view rather than detailed specialist view. (Something from Scientific American rather than Journal of Cell Biology) This makes it more of a "history of science" than a "big history." One hundred years from now, whole sections could be completely rewritten. (Even basic things like plate tectonics were considered poppycock a little more than 50 years ago.) Many of the arguments put forth for accepting the "consensus view" seemed rather simplistic. (For example, one of Darwin's reason to espouse evolutionary species differentiation rather than creation was the use of "hands" for different purposes in mammals - such as a bat's wing, a whale's fin, and a man's hand. However, from an engineering viewpoint, this seems like a great argument for creation. If I find some part that works well, I will use it for as many different purposes as possible. I can just imagine a universe created entirely out of duct tape!)

The rise of man and civilization takes up only a brief sliver of time in the entire history. The professor puts forth "collective learning" as the trait that has allowed man to dominate the earth. The last century has greatly accelerated that dominance. He poses some interesting theories for what the future will hold. Many of these have come from the field of science fiction. These all sound like interesting things to read. One holds that societies that increase in collective learning eventually develop the power to destroy themselves, bringing them back down to the start again. Others talk about the universe collapsing and then big-banging again. Others say it will keep expanding. There could be intelligent life everywhere or life nowhere. I'm surprised they didn't mention a Truman Show possibility where we are in a little container separate from something vast.

The attempt to bridge the gaps between various disciplines to provide a large scale history is a noble endeavour. It acknowledges that some key time periods tend to be ignored because they lie within the cracks between disciplines. (For example, the human agricultural era is too old for historians because there is no writing, yet too new for ancient archaeologists.) Alas, this division is what has enabled professionals to delve deeply in their areas. Stripping it away tries to present a coherent story of the history of "life, the universe and everything" based on man's current scientific knowledge. Unfortunately, this also points out there are still many gaps in understanding.

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