This interdisciplinary course in “Big History” integrates the human story with its terrestrial and cosmic surroundings. Drawing on the work of scholars such as David Christian, Fred Spiers, and Marnie Hughes-Warrington, the course focuses on two key themes. First, it pays careful attention to issues of scale—via the notion of “powers of ten”—by shifting perspectives in space and time through many orders of magnitude. It proceeds logarithmically, “nesting” each topic (and each disciplinary perspective) within its predecessor. Class sessions thus narrow the picture from cosmic groups of galaxies through the solar system and our own planet, ultimately reaching questions of biology, life, and the human experience. Second, it focuses on themes of complexity and connection—showing how the universe and earth have their own history. Starting with the Big Bang, these histories have been characterized by the emergence of more complicated aggregations of atoms, molecules, and elements. These new units grew in complexity (but also instability) as they extracted increasing amounts of energy from their environments. Similar processes occur on many different scales—including on our planet, as first non-human life and then, much later, human groups grew and expanded. The class shows how these communities developed, through interregional and global connections, new ways to share information and thereby to exploit natural resources ever more fully. Yet just as stars and galaxies ultimately face collapse or a slow demise (via entropy and the second law of themodynamics), so human society now confronts a range of resource challenges that are difficult to deny or overcome.
Students will attend three hours of lecture and one discussion section per week. Evaluation is based on a midterm and final exam, and short writing assignments (disciplinary profiles and reading responses). The main course text is David Christian, Maps of Time; most other readings available on C-Tools and electronic reserves