Big History: David Christian Covers 13.7 Billion Years of History in 18 Minutes

Per­haps you noticed? Dur­ing the past two years, the TED brand has mor­phed into some­thing new. Once known for stag­ing a cou­ple of high-priced annu­al con­fer­ences, TED has recent­ly launched a series of new prod­ucts: TEDx con­fer­ences for the mass­es, TED Books, TED Radio, TED ED and Ads Worth Spread­ing. In the wake of all of this, some have ques­tioned whether TED has grown too quick­ly, or to put it more col­lo­qui­al­ly, “jumped the shark.” There are days when TED feels like a vic­tim of its own suc­cess. But there are oth­er days — espe­cial­ly when it returns to its roots — where the orga­ni­za­tion can still be a vital force. That hap­pens when­ev­er TED wraps up its big annu­al con­fer­ence, as it did two weeks ago, and puts some note­wor­thy talks online. (See, for exam­ple, Stew­art Brand describ­ing how sci­en­tists will bring extinct species back from the dead.) Or it hap­pens when TED brings old­er talks from its archive to YouTube.

Which brings us to the talk above. Here we have David Chris­t­ian, a pro­fes­sor at Aus­trali­a’s Mac­quar­ie Uni­ver­si­ty, explain­ing the his­to­ry of the world in less than 18 min­utes, start­ing with the Big Bang and then cov­er­ing anoth­er 13.7 bil­lion years. For­mal­ly trained as a Russ­ian his­to­ri­an, Chris­t­ian began work­ing on Big His­to­ry in the 1980s, a meta dis­ci­pline that “exam­ines long time frames using a mul­ti­dis­ci­pli­nary approach based on com­bin­ing numer­ous dis­ci­plines from sci­ence and the human­i­ties.” Chris­t­ian then pop­u­lar­ized his new­fan­gled way of telling his­to­ry when he pro­duced for the Teach­ing Com­pa­ny: Big His­to­ry: The Big Bang, Life on Earth, and the Rise of Human­i­ty. It did­n’t hurt that Bill Gates stum­bled upon the lec­tures and gave back­ing to The Big His­to­ry Project, an online ini­tia­tive that exper­i­ments with bring­ing Big His­to­ry to high school stu­dents. The Big His­to­ry Project got its start at the 2011 TED con­fer­ence, with the talk pre­sent­ed above.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

Free Online His­to­ry Cours­es from Great Uni­ver­si­ties

A Crash Course in World His­to­ry

The Com­plete His­to­ry of the World (and Human Cre­ativ­i­ty) in 100 Objects

The Pod­cast His­to­ry of Our World Will Take You From Cre­ation Myths to (Even­tu­al­ly) the Present Day

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Comments (7)
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  • david gordon says:

    You assume life began 13.7 b yrs ago. Could life be a cyclic phe­nom­e­na, the last cycle begin­ning then. Nei­ther how life began nor if it was before 13.7 B yrs ago can I answer nor spec­u­late. Maybe you can offer me an answer. Your quick his­to­ry was excel­lent. You might note that our 50 or 100 years here are a mere spec or grain of sand in a quite vast ocean, and uni­verse.

  • bruce hyman says:

    how long would it take a cre­ation­ist to cov­er the 5000 years of glob­al his­to­ry from that per­spec­tive?

  • Charles O. Slavens says:

    The hubris that these con­clu­sions are based upon is mind-bog­gling. Here we are, a pri­ma­tive tribe of hairy lit­tle apes who, less than a hun­dred thou­sand years ago, climbed down from the trees, stood upright and looked over the tops of the grass.nnGiven our prim­i­tive state in the evo­lu­tion­ary process, and our inabil­i­ty to see beyond our tech­ni­cal lim­i­ta­tions, is it not a tad pre­sump­tu­ous to state that what we gaze out upon is not “the” uni­verse? Would it not be more accu­rate to say it is our “local” universe?nnUnfortunately Homo Saipan’s aware­ness is lim­it­ed by its flawed abil­i­ty to per­ceive beyond its painful­ly lim­it­ed hori­zons. Our specie’s per­cep­tions are cloud­ed by imper­fec­tions in our abil­i­ty to sep­a­rate the appar­ent from the real.

  • Teresa says:

    No such thing as big bang (1927 LaMaitre), nev­er accept­ed (Ein­stein) and then dis­proved 30 years ago in 1985 (LaVi­o­lette). No black holes (UNC, Hawkin, LaVi­o­lette, et al.). No miss­ing link. A comet did not cause the extinc­tions (65M year cycle north end behind Vir­go Clus­ter). First AND Sec­ond laws of ther­mo­dy­nam­ics have been dis­proved. His Physics, astron­o­my, chem­istry, etc. is wrong and so is every oth­er assump­tion. My 13 year old knows more. Has he read a book in the past 25 years? Has David ever heard of fact check­ing? I felt he was rely­ing heav­i­ly on his 4th grade sci­ence class.

    I did a lit­tle back­ground check, took less than 18 sec­onds. Fund­ed by Bill Gates. David either has incred­i­bly bad infor­ma­tion and/or is an incred­i­bly bad judge of char­ac­ter. Either way, we suf­fer.

  • RedDingo says:

    You should have giv­en it 36 sec­onds, as your assump­tion on Black Holes (in the very least) is incor­rect. What Hawk­ing meant was that our orig­i­nal con­cep­tion of ‘black holes’ may not exist. You owe you exis­tence to them, as with­out this phe­nom­e­non our galaxy would­n’t exist… These are the­o­ries. The Big Bang The­o­ry. The counter-the­o­ries. All are the­o­ries. And schol­ars like Chris­t­ian (or any­one) can hard­ly pro­duce a sol­id body of work with­out choos­ing a the­o­ry that res­onates with their research.

    Just because one or two schol­ars present an alter­nate the­o­ry to the big bang that seems just as plau­si­ble, it does­n’t mean every oth­er the­o­ry is now wrong. It does­n’t work like that- not until hard, sol­id evi­dence con­firms it as fact. Just be wary. Slam­ming schol­ars based on your top five google search­es is kin­da uncool, and indi­cates a lack of wide reading/understanding of the­o­ry and sci­en­tif­ic pro­ce­dure and the nature of schol­ar­ly debate.

    The point of Chris­tian’s work is not to enforce the big bang or hinge on what start­ed it all, but to explore the uni­verse as a his­tor­i­cal con­cept of phas­es. The con­cept would remain intact even with­out a ‘big bang’. It’s just about the build­ing of com­plex­i­ty from the sim­pler ear­ly uni­verse to today.

    So what if Bill Gates funds it. The peo­ple we vote for fund wars, at least he is doing some­thing use­ful. And I don’t even like the guy hehe.

    fur­ther read­ing on what Hawk­ing actu­al­ly meant. check it out! I’m not try­ing to antag­o­nise you, just offer­ing a wider per­spec­tive on a high­ly debat­able sub­ject which could’ve been award­ed a few more sec­onds research.

  • RedDingo says:

    hehe­he how quick­ly can you say ‘good morn­ing chil­dren, you’re all going to hell’ ?

  • Robert Cranston says:

    I shall how­ev­er con­tin­ue in my faith that all the things that hap­pen in this world are caused by sprites and gob­lins.

    And that when I die I shall go to live in a trop­i­cal par­adise. With Alyson Han­ni­gan.

    And every­one I hate will go to an aban­doned dump­ster behind a Chi­nese restau­rant. In New Jer­sey.

    That is my belief.

    Fol­low me. Light a can­dle, make a wish.


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