The Big History

With a big history of 13.8 billion years, how to content oneself with “mere” centuries?

I learned about “Big History” when wondering how to begin studying History (the “little” one). I had decided to begin in 1789, following the example of the famous Eric Hobsbawm’s series. I had already bought all four volumes, so I convinced myself it made sense for someone like me who wanted to grasp the present and not indulge infinitely in the idiosyncrasies of the past.

Nope. Not for me.

The problem is that all history books begin in a period they will not cover, and even few introductory pages are enough to plant the curiosity germ inside my mind. The revolutions of the 18th century were the apex of the Enlightenment, but what the hell was the Enlightenment in the first place?

That takes me to Voltaire, Rousseau and the philosophes, but I quickly see myself during the Age of Reason studying Descartes, Locke, Newton and Bacon.

But Newton takes me to Galileo, Kepler, Copernicus and then I am already in the 16th century, enthralled by the Protestant Reformation and full of doubts.

To make things worse, so close to the 15th century, I encounter the very birth of Modernity: the fall of Constantinople, Columbus and Gutenberg. I want to stop, but I learn Constantinople was the capital of only the Eastern Roman Empire because the Western one had already collapsed almost exactly a thousand years before. And I didn’t even know there had been such division!

In my excitement, I practically jump all the Middle Ages and land on the Classical, yearning to see Rome and then the Hellenistic period, which I learn was caused by Alexander, the Great, and has nothing to do with Helen of Troy, like I’ve always (idiotically) thought.

I finally arrive at Aristotle, Plato and Socrates, but by then I’m already resigned to the fact that I can’t stop anymore.

Why had philosophy begun only by that time? I end up rolling back to 3,000 B.C. when civilisation itself was born and realize I don’t know what civilisation is!

So, I gaze at the dawn of writing, of the State, of agriculture, and by now I’m in 10,000 B.C., at the last gasp of a glaciation. While observing my six-month-old daughter’s utter dependence, I wonder how man could survive that!

Then I think of fire and of man as ape.

I think of dinosaurs and of fish sliding out of the sea.

I think of life and of a lump of reproducing molecules.

I think of Earth and of the solar system as spinning nebulae.

I think of the universe and of an explosion out of nowhere…

And there it was, at the height of my insanity and “paralysis through analysis”, when I had lost any and all idea of where to start, that I saw David Christian talking about “Big History”.

I immediately hated the guy.

With just eight thresholds, he masterfully summarises 13.8 billion years of existence.

With five hundred words I can hardly explain how I came to hear about him.

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