The Wonder of Big History
"We are 'citizens of the universe' born out of stardust and the evolution of galaxies"
~ Brian Swimme, Source
"Could you pass the chocolate?” My brother says as I take my marshmallow out of the camp fire, admiring my perfectly crisp creation. “Sure, here it is,” I say, handing it to him, then put my graham cracker on top of my s’mores, admiring my masterpiece.
I take a slow bite, savoring all the flavors as I watch the flames dance and flicker, sparks flying upward. I lift my head above the orange crackling flames towards the sparkling sky, alit with stars. The smells of pine trees mixed with campfire and chocolate fill me with delight.
My dad waits another moment and then asks, “shall I keep going?”
My brother and I reply in chorus: “yes!”
My dad opens his book and starts reading about ancient stars exploding to create all the elements that make up our universe. He reads about the formation of our sun and our planet, then about early prokaryote life and how photosynthesis evolved. As a result of this ability to feed off of sunshine and produce oxygen, so much oxygen started being released that it threatened the very existence of life altogether. In that moment, when there was great danger of life destroying itself, an evolutionary leap occurred and certain organisms learned to feed off the oxygen, creating symbiotic relationships. And so life didn’t just survive, it flourished and became increasingly more complex.
I sit back in my chair again, gazing up at the Milky Way. I feel a surge of gratitude well up in me as I contemplate all that took place in order for me to be able to exist. These sparkling lights in the night sky are my ancestors; I am made of stardust. I have ancient stars to thank for my life. I don't just love the stars for their gorgeous mysterious twinkles, I love them because they are a part of me. And not just me, everyone and everything I see around me. We are all a part of this great unfolding.
"Four billion years ago planet Earth was molten rock; now it sings opera!”
~ Brian Swimme
Every summer while I was young, my family would go up in the Rocky Mountains, sit by the same river, walk along the same path, and read Brian Swimme’s book, The Universe Story. We would sit in awe around the campfire under a blanket of stars and contemplate the wonders of the universe. Contemplating Deep Time and the history of our universe has always filled me with wonder, awe, and a deep reverence for life.
Even though I've been enamored with the great story of our cosmos since I was young, I only just recently discovered the Big History Project online course. What an amazing creation! There is both a school curriculum as well as a free online version. I cannot recommend the online course enough! If you want an awe experience, I invite you to carve out some time and really take this in. To understand that you and I have emerged from this epic saga, that we are in fact made of stardust, and that we are the universe seeing itself, is truly awe-inspiring.
Big History is an interdisciplinary field of study that focuses on history from the Big Bang until now, exploring human existence in the context of this much larger unfolding than traditional history courses. I look forward to writing more about Big History in upcoming posts. For now, here is a condensed version of the Big History course in a great TED talk given by the creator of the course, David Christian. If it sparks something in you, please take the time to take The Big History Project course.
In an article titled, The Universe Story and Planetary Civilization, Brian Swimme and Mary Evelyn Tucker describe how important it is to understand this story:
Waking up to our fundamental relationship with the cosmos will be a way to reengage with life. The universe story enables us to connect more deeply with the universe and the Earth of which we are a part. In doing this, we will appreciate the need for a sustainable human presence on the planet.
We can indeed be inspired by this view of nested interdependence—from galaxies and stars to planets and ecosystems—so that we sense how personally we are woven into the fabric of life. We are part of this ongoing journey. From this perspective, we can see that our current destructive habits toward the environment are unsustainable. In an evolutionary framework the damage we are causing is immense—indeed, cataclysmic. We can thus recognize ecological, economic, and social change as not only necessary but inevitable.
If you check out the Big History Project, feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below. Until then, keep shining!