Big History
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Big History

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There are many ecclesiastical and philosophical disciplines that ate founded on a simple premise that upon even a modicum of refection prove to be a concept of the grandest implications; Big History. The mini-series based on the project of the same name founded by Bill Gates and David Christian. The mandate was to develop a curriculum that would consolidate the numerous branches of the humanities with myriad of scientific specialties. On almost an university campus there is a clearly etched line in the stones of the campus dividing those fields of investigation probing the nature of life and the human condition; psychology, sociology, anthropology and archeology one side of the academic chasm and the hard sciences that explore the intrinsic nature of the universe; biology and chemistry running the gamut from the vastness of cosmology to the unimaginably infinitesimal of quantum mechanics. From the perspective endeavored by the Big History Project time causality is not linear at all. It is a vast web existing in the four dimensions of time space that binds everything together. In a fashion Big History is well described by Obi-Wan’s description of the force to Luke; "a field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us. It binds the galaxy together." The episodes of the mini-series on the History Channel spin-off network, H2, each focus on one thread in this multidimensional; tapestry following back and forth through time from the mundane motivations of men to the grand precisions of the universe.

During my undergraduate studies I was fortunate enough be in an honor’s program that had a fascinating feature. The traditional requirements; Literature, philosophy and history, were taught in their respective classes but once a week all three professors would gather us together in the common room or out in the quad and do a round robin session. The topics and themes were coordinated so that roughly the same periods were under discussion. For example a novel by Dickens was examined not only was a great piece of literature but indicative of the historical social climate and the prevalent philosophical attitude of the period. The most important lesson I took away from this experience was to try my best to see any issue from all possible sides. The Big History Project set out to escalate this idea to its grandest possible level.

The inaugural episode had what might seem far too mundane to initiate a series with such an incredibly broad scope; salt. In most industrialized countries it is found in even the most modern homes. Packets of the white crystals are freely given away in most places were food is served. A full container is almost inevitable the least expensive item found in any shopping chart. Forms of it are liberally tossed on sidewalks during icy weather conditions. It is also indispensable for life and obtaining it has been a crucial driving factor for a significant portion of history. this episode makes a simple statement that salt was the motivation for the construction of the Eire canal from Buffalo, New York bordering Lake Erie to the Hudson River leading directly to the port of New York City and on to the world. They go how Buffalo was named for the immense herds of bison that used a large deposit of salt in the vicinity for survival. They further posit that most of the initial roads were built upon the trails animals used to travel to their salt licks. They address how the government of ancient China taxed salt in order to fund the most massive civil construction project in history, the Great Wall of China. Other uses of salt for payment lead to the Latin word or salt, salarium, was the etiology of our word salary. And saying such as ‘worthy of his salt’. To cover the scientific aspects of NaCl part of the discussion was devoted to its function as a source of ions interacting with the bipolar nature of water. This was demonstrated with a brief look at the use of salt as a desiccant, drawing out water as a means on preservation for everything from fish meat to human corpses, i.e., mummies.

Each episode is constructed along similar lines but this one afforded an ideal venue for discussing the benefits of the series and juxtaposing them to its flaws. Other episodes did fulfill the promise id thematic diversity from the impact of the horse, gold, and silver to larger scale occurrences as meteors, super novae and gravity. Each episode provides a different way step back and attempt to discern the universality of the interconnections. What happens more often than not is the twenty two minutes comprising each episode comes across the shot gun blast of factoids. I frequently felt as if I was picking up cards from a dropped game of Trivial Pursuit than learning to associate the beautiful connection between every iota of the cosmos.

Part of my training was preparing research for submission to peer review periodicals. The most critical part of such an endeavor it replication of the results and fact checking. I wholehearted am in favor of the Big History Project not just in theory but in firm belief of this concept as crucial to the intellectual maturity of humanity. We are now at the point in time where the grandness of the cosmos and the miniscule components of reality itself are sides of the same coin. The major issue here presented here fantastic as a methodology and a graduate level curriculum. However, as the foundation for a mini-series consisting of twenty two minute episodes with a two hour finale to pull them together is insufficient to do justice to such a lofty set of ideals. To return to our example it is true that the Erie Canal did greatly increase the availability of salt that was certainly not the primary motivation of the construction project. The water way from the Atlantic Ocean to the Great Lake ant its numerous derivative river ways to the rest of the continent was the d'etre. I could not readily find references to a salt tax financing the Great Wall although admittedly I performed only a cursory inquiry. The importance of certain facts; people, places and materials, are often exaggerated as a means to support a preset hypothesis. While the information is very fascinating, as for its ultimate veracity; that must be taken with a grain of salt.

Posted 03/14/2014

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