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WHAT IS BIG HISTORY?


WHY DO WE LOOK AT THINGS FROM
FAR AWAY AND CLOSE UP?

SY 2016-17

UNIT 1

WHAT IS BIG HISTORY?


CONTENTS

UNIT 1 BASICS

Notations & Measures

Unit 1 Overview

Big Questions

Unit 1 Learning Outcomes

Origin Stories Introduction

Unit 1 Lessons

Approaches to Knowledge

Unit 1 Key Concepts

How Do We Decide What to Believe?

How Did We Find the Distance to the


Sun?

Crash Course Astronomy Distances

How Old is the Earth?

KEY CONTENT

What Is Big History?

Big History Timeline

The Big Bang Crash Course

A Big History of Everything

Powers of Ten

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LOOKING AHEAD

Whats Next in Unit 2?

UNIT 1
OVERVIEW
Key Discipline: Big History
Timespan: 13.8 billion years ago
Driving Question: Why do we look at things from far away and close up?
World History
Big History includes selected World History topics in support of local standards in New York,
California, and other regions around the world. While not a replacement for a World History
course, they explore the intersection of Big History and World History. These activities,
videos, and articles are marked with a globe icon or '(WH)'.
Science
The Big History science extension aims to increase the depth of STEM and general science
content in the course. These activities, videos, and articles are marked with (Sci).

BIG HISTORY PROJECT / UNIT 1 / WHAT IS BIG HISTORY?

UNIT 1
LEARNING OUTCOMES
By the end of Unit 1, students should be able to:
1.

Define thresholds of increasing complexity, origin stories, and scale.

2.

Understand that Big History is a modern, science-based origin story that draws on many
different types of knowledge.

3.

Understand how you fit into the Big History narrative, using the concept of thresholds to
frame your past, present, and future as well as the history of the Universe.

4.

Understand what disciplines are and consider how the viewpoints of many different scholars
can be integrated for a better understanding of a topic.

5.

Learn to use timelines as a way to compare the scale of personal and historic events.

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UNIT 1
LESSONS
1.0 Welcome to Big History
What is Big History? How is it different from other courses you have taken? Big History is a course
that attempts to study some of the most interesting questions that humans can ask by surveying
the entire history of the Universe using the best evidence available from many disciplines.
1.1 Scale
A mile, a year, a foot all our everyday measures relate to a familiar scale. Big History is so big,
though, that we need to use entirely different measurements on an entirely different scale.
1.2 Origin Stories
People have always told origin stories stories about how the Universe and humans came to be.
Big History is a modern, scientific origin story, told by a global community.
1.3 Claim Testing
How do you know what to believe? If you read it on the Internet, does it have to be true? How
about something your doctor tells you? Claim testing helps us assess the trustworthiness of
information.

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Continued next slide


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UNIT 1
LESSONS
Continued from previous slide

1.4 Yardsticks and Clocks


As humans have devised ways to observe more and more in space, weve needed new kinds of
yardsticks and clocks to measure the enormous distances between objects and to pinpoint key
events using the scale of the Big History timeline.

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UNIT 1
KEY CONCEPTS
Big Bang
Big History
claim
claim testing
complexity
emergent properties
entropy (the law of)
Goldilocks Conditions
history
ingredients
interdisciplinary approach

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origin story

KEY CONTENT

WHAT IS BIG HISTORY?


Video / David Christian

Big History tells the story of the Universe from the Big Bang to the present, a time span of 13.8
billion years.
Big History is the modern, scientific origin story, based on the best evidence that scientists and
historians have compiled to date. As new and better evidence is found, the story will need
to be updated.
Big History asks big questions. Among the questions that big historians tackle are: How was the
Universe created? Why does it work the way it does? Why are stars so big? Why are you and
I so small?

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BIG HISTORY
TIMELINE
Infographic

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THE BIG BANG CRASH


COURSE
Video

In which John Green, Hank Green, and Emily Graslie teach about, well, everything. Starting
with the Big Bang, theyll take you right through all of history (recorded and otherwise.
Hank and John frame the notions of scale and context using the example of Earthrise, a
famous photo by astronaut William Anders.
Discussion of scale continues by compressing 13.8 billion years into 13 years, and comparing
significant moments in time. For example, The Cold War, the first man on the moon, your birth,
the Internet, the Big Mac, all within the last second.
The Big Bang is described as the moment when time and space are created. It was expanding
from an unimaginably tiny point to an unimaginably large Universe unimaginably quickly.
The First Law of Thermodynamics is that matter and energy cannot be created or destroyed.
Everything we have now, we had then.
Edwin Hubble, expanding the work of Henrietta Leavitt, accurately measures how other galaxies
beyond the Milky Way moving away from us.
Penzias and Wilson discover Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB).
Dark matter discovery potential in 10 to 20 years.

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A BIG HISTORY OF
EVERYTHING
Video

This video begins with the statement that Big History is the story of how we almost didnt
happen.
One example of this idea is in the physical relationship of the Earth and the Sun. Earth is in a
location that allows liquid water to exist. Any closer to the Sun and the oceans would boil; any
further away and everything would be frozen.
Another example is the physical relationship of the Earth and Moon. The Moon helps stabilize
the Earths rotation, helping to ensure a stable climate. If the Moon does not perform this
function, life on Earth would be very different.
Jupiter also plays an important role in protecting the Earth from asteroid impacts. Because
Jupiter is so large, its gravitational attraction keep many asteroids from threatening the Earth.
The timeline of Big History is the timeline of the history of the Universe since the Big Bang. Big
History presents the past as a series of interconnected events, not just a series of events that
happen over a period of time.
This timeline is built around eight events called thresholds of complexity. At these moments, on
the one hand, the Universe exhibited a significant increase in its level of complexity. On the
other hand, a line was crossed from which it would be very difficult to reverse. Undoing the
creation of space, time, matter, and energy would be very difficult.

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POWERS OF TEN
Video

Big History tells a story that involves thinking on the biggest scales, like the size of the Universe
and the age of the Universe; and on the smallest scales, like the size of the nucleus of a
hydrogen atom or the amount of time it took for the first matter to be created.
Powers of Ten shows what it means to move from the biggest scales to the smallest scales.

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NOTATIONS & MEASURES


Infographic

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BIG QUESTIONS
Video

This video is a very short introduction to importance of big questions in the Big History course.
How did the Universe begin? What is the meaning of life? How did life begin? What does it
mean to be human? How does modern science help you think about these questions? These
are just some of the questions that students will be asked to consider in the course.

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ORIGIN STORIES
INTRODUCTION
Article / Cynthia Stokes Brown

In the first article, Cynthia Stokes Brown introduces the theme of origin stories and discusses why
they are so common across cultures.
Origin stories answer important questions like How was the Universe created? and How were
humans created? They reassure people about their place in the world.
Origin stories differ from society to society, and some societies may have multiple origin stories
or have different versions of the same story.
In the remaining articles, Cynthia Stokes Brown, Craig Benjamin, and David Baker compile a
variety of origin stories that emphasize different questions and teach different lessons. The
stories represented are: Chinese, Efik, Greek, Iroquois, Judeo-Christian, Mayan, and Zulu.
Brown also offers an example of a modern scientific origin story.

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APPROACHES TO
KNOWLEDGE
Article / Bob Bain

Each discipline has a unique approach to investigating reality. The questions that drive each
discipline and the types of evidence gathered to answer those questions differs from discipline
to discipline.
The quest for knowledge has not always required the separation of the disciplines into distinct
spheres. Socrates, for example, emphasized questions and did not strictly separate the
different disciplines and their questions. Today, scholars tend to emphasize the need for
separation.
An important question in the Big History course will be how scholars discover or create the
ideas in each discipline.
Textbooks tend to put questions last, after presenting evidence. Scholars tend to put questions
first, before gathering evidence.
The more general process of inquiry tends to be uniform across all disciplines. First, ask a
question about something youre curious about. Second, make a conjecture, guess, or
hypothesis. Third, gather evidence to help you think about that question. Fourth, make a claim
based on what youve found. Fifth, share your idea so others can critique it, and continue to
look for additional evidence.

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HOW DO WE DECIDE
WHAT TO BELIEVE?
Video / Bob Bain

When you hear someone make a claim, youre likely to have one of three responses: I can
trust this claim, I can ignore this claim, or I should investigate this claim.
The Big History Project emphasizes the importance of claims in each unit. You will need to
decide whether to believe them or if you would like to investigate further. Four claim testers
will help you evaluate claims made throughout the course:
Intuition is your gut instinct. Does the claim feel right to you, or does it feel a bit off?
Logic involves reasoning. Does the claim make sense? Is there a good argument for it?
Authority requires you to think about who is making the claim. Do you trust the source?
Does the source have specific knowledge or expertise that gives you confidence?
Evidence is something you can investigate and verify. If you or another person looked at the
same evidence, would you arrive at the same findings?

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HOW DID WE FIND THE


DISTANCE TO THE SUN?
Article / Morgan Rehnberg

This question puzzled thinkers from antiquity to the eighteenth century, when the distance was
finally calculated to within three percent of the actual number.
After Hipparchus calculated the distance from the Earth to the Moon using parallax, Aristarchus
attempted to do the same for the distance from the Earth to the Sun. His calculations, using
trigonometry and geometry, were within seven percent of the actual figure.
Finally, in the eighteenth century, James Gregory and Edmond Halley decided that the key to
the calculations was the transit of Venus. The problem with using the transit of Venus was that
this usually only occurs once in a lifetime, but it occasionally happens in pairs divided by eightyear increments. When Halley realized that he would not live to see the next transit, he wrote
down meticulous instructions for how to measure it.
Astronomers from France and England prepared to record the transit in 1761 and confirmed
these calculations eight years later. These observations were the key to calculating the
astronomical unit, or the distance from the Earth to the Sun, which is used as the baseline
measurement for distances in the entire Universe.
As of 2012, the measurement was 149,597,870,700 meters.

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CRASH COURSE
ASTRONOMY DISTANCES
Video / Crash Course

Figuring out astronomical distances can be quite a difficult task. The Ancient Greeks, namely
Aristarchus, determined that the circumference of the Earth could be calculated by using simple
observations combined with geometry.
Once the circumference of the Earth was known then the distance from Earth to other objects in
space could be calculated, like the distance to the Moon or the Sun. While the Greeks numbers
werent particularly accurate, their methods were sound and future scientists used this formula
to make better predictions.
The measurement from the Earth to the Sun was so important for measuring distances in space
that scientists referred to it as the astronomical unit. After years of collective learning, this unit
was set in the 1960s and is now known as the fundamental meterstick of astronomy, the scale
we use to measure everything. After this discovery, scientists realized that they could measure
the distance to really distant stars by using parallax and spectroscopy (the brightness of stars).
Now instead of using kilometers to measure distances in space, we use light years and parsecs
because the distance to stars outside of our Solar System and even outside of our galaxy are
hundreds of trillions of kilometers away.

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HOW OLD IS THE EARTH?


Video / Fraser Cain

How do we know that the Earth is 4.54 billion years old? Its more difficult than you think.
Various theories were proposed throughout history based upon plate tectonics, evaporation of
oceans, and fossils. Finally, a more precise method was devised when scientists realized that
they could measure the radioactive isotopes of space material, namely meteorites that fell to
Earth.
When all of the meteorites that were tested came back as the same age then the scientists
knew they were on to something.

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LOOKING AHEAD

WHATS NEXT?
In Unit 2, we will focus on the Big Bang, which marks the beginning of 13.8 billion years in
Big History. We will learn:

How the theory of the Big Bang developed.

The ways that modern scientists built on the work of prior generations and used the tools of
their time to understand the Universe.

What the very early history of the Universe looked like and what it generated.

How our Universe has changed over time.

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