This interdisciplinary course in “Big History” integrates the human story with its terrestrial and cosmic surroundings while focusing on three 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. The class proceeds logarithmically, “nesting” each topic within its predecessor. Lectures 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, each topic offers a different disciplinary perspective, and the course integrates humanistic, social-science, and natural-science perspectives on the wider human environment. Although providing an overview of key notions in the field of world and global history, the course also provides an opportunity for students to see the connections (and tensions) between different disciplinary approaches, epistemological assumptions, and the natural, terrestrial, cosmic, and historical scales of time and space. Third, 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. Yet just as stars and galaxies ultimately face collapse or a slow demise (via entropy and the second law of thermodynamics), so human society now also confronts a range of resource challenges that are difficult to deny or overcome.
“Zoom” is a four-credit course, with three weekly lectures and a one-hour GSI-led discussion section. Assignments include a midterm and final exam (20% each), plus two short papers (10% each) and a disciplinary web module project (20%). Attendance and participation comprise the remaining 20%. Readings average 150 pages per week.