Big History: Universe Biography

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Big History: Universe Biography

Big History: A Biography of the Universe

Take-home Written Assignment – Why Look at Things from Far Away and from Close-Up?          

Due date: Thursday, January 31st by 11:59pm – Submit via “Assignments” on Blackboard

Length: 600 – 800 words (include a word count at the top of the first page)

Weighting: 15% of your final mark

Marks: 10

This assignment asks you to apply the concept of scale to historical changes in the natural environment and human culture. It therefore may be helpful to review what we have learned about this “pillar” of Big History so far. If you return to the Week 1 materials posted on Blackboard, you will find a reading titled “Pillars of Big History”. If you return to Week 2, you will find the topics titled “Jing Video – Notations and Measures” and “Jing Video – The Scale of the Universe”. You may wish to review these topics to refresh your memory on this important concept. Big History: Universe Biography

The Gist:

This assignment is adapted from the “Investigation 1” task in Section 1.3 of the Big History Project (BHP) web site. You will develop a 4 – 5 paragraph essay in response to the investigation question “Why is it important to study things from far away and from close-up?” It is important to note that “from far away and from close-up” can refer to both scales of space (or distance) and scales of time.

To develop an answer to this question, you will rely mainly on the sources given in the “Investigation Library” below in this document (not the one on the BHP web site). In your assignment, you must refer to at least 3 sources from the Investigation Library. However, you may also draw on 1 source outside of these sources (e.g. from the rest of the BHP web site or from external web sites). For each of your sources, you will need to provide appropriate bibliographic information (see below).


The Steps:

  1. Exploration – Before investigating a topic, it is useful to come up with a conjecture – a speculation or guess about the answer to a question – before you’ve begun your research. Write or type a 1 – 2 sentence conjecture giving an answer to the question “Why is it important to study things from far away and from close-up?” Can you think of a time when studying something both from far away and from close-up helped you learn about something? How did doing this help you learn?
  2. Research – Access the “Investigation Library” below (note that the first two sources in the Investigation Library are reproduced in their entirety below, whereas the last three sources must be accessed via a link). As stated above, you must use a minimum of 3 of them. I encourage you to look at all of them before you begin.

As you read/watch, think to yourself: What do these sources teach you about the value of studying things both from far away and from close-up? It may be helpful to write or type some notes on this question as you read the sources. Remember, each source has something valuable to say not just about why we should study things either from far away or close up, but why we should study things both from far away and close up. This is the question you are asked to answer. Keep in mind that this assignment isn’t about repeating others’ answers to this question, but drawing on the arguments and experiences of others to form your own answer to the question. Where possible, read between the lines!

  1. Thinking – Type a 4 – 5 paragraph essay answering the question “Why is it important to study things from far away and from close-up?” Your essay should include the following components and structure:

Introductory Paragraph – Begin your essay with a brief introduction explaining what you are going to say in your essay. A) First, explain what the investigation question is, and why you think it is important to seek an answer to this question (can you think of an example from your chosen career?); B) Explain what your initial conjecture about this question was, and whether you changed your perspective in the course of your research; and C) Drawing on your research, briefly state 2 – 3 reasons why you think it is important to study things from far away and from close up. You may wish to use (A), (B), and (C) to clearly distinguish these parts of your introduction. Big History: Universe Biography

2 – 3 Body Paragraphs – Each body paragraph will expand upon one point from your introductory paragraph. For each body paragraph: A) In 1 – 2 sentences, state your point. B) Provide support for this point by referring to at least 1 of your 3 – 4 sources. You may wish to consider the following questions: What does the author or speaker say in the source? How does the source provide support for your stated reason why it is important to study things from far away and close-up? What examples can you provide to effectively illustrate your point?

When discussing each source, you must tell me the title of the source you are referring to (and the author, if available). For example, you might write something like:

“In the source ‘David Christian on Historical Scales’, David Christian argues that […]. This made me realize that it is important to study things both from far away and close-up because […]. For example […].”

Concluding Paragraph – Finally, type a brief conclusion in which you recount your 2 – 3 reasons why you think it is important to study things from far away and from close-up.

The Bibliography:

Each source used in the assignment must have a bibliographic entry. Sources from outside of the course must be scientific or scholarly in nature. Enter bibliographical information as per these instructions:

– Enter sources from the Investigation Library like this:  “Investigation Library – [Title]”

– Enter other sources from the BHP web site like this:  “[Location of source – e.g. ‘BHP Unit X’] – [Title]”

– Enter external sources like this:  “[Author or Web Site Name] – [Title] – [URL]”

See the Investigation Library beginning on the following page.

Investigation Library

Source #1 – “David Christian on Historical Scales”:

David Christian is a professor at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia. Originally a scholar of Russian history, Christian developed the idea of “big history” in the 1980s and wrote about it in the award-winning book Maps of Time. He worked with Bill Gates in launching the Big History Project to offer big history to high school students. He encourages historians and history students to use all scales of time and space to study the past. In this essay, Christian explains why he thinks this approach is so valuable.

It may be easiest to consider the issue by thinking of history writing as the construction of diagrams or “maps” of the past. Maps, like diagrams, are different from the objects they describe. A map that was on the same scale as the real world wouldn’t be much use because, to find out what was a mile away from you on the map, you’d have to walk as far as you would in the real world. Maps are helpful precisely because they are normally on smaller scales than the real world. Maps, like diagrams, compress information. But to do this they have to select, excluding most of the real world, and including only what is important for their particular purposes. Big History: Universe Biography

This process of choosing what is and what is not important forces mapmakers (and historians) to think carefully about the questions they are asking, and the sort of knowledge they want to convey. It also gives mapmakers (and historians) great power, because it means they can shape the questions that other people ask, as well as the images of the world that other people carry around in their heads. And those images matter. Anyone who has been seriously lost knows that having a good map can be a matter of life or death.

Unlike mapmakers, though, historians have to worry about scales in time as well as space. They may choose to write about the past of a particular village or an entire continent or even…of the entire world. They may choose to write about a single decade, or a few hundred years, or even…of the entire period during which humans have been on earth. The choices they make determine the sort of history they write, so historians ought to think as hard as mapmakers when choosing the scale of their “maps of the past”…to see what the past looked like when viewed on multiple scales up to those of the Universe….


Source #2 – “Fernand Braundel on Historical Scales”:

French historian Fernand Braudel (1902–1985) studied history at the Sorbonne in Paris and later taught in Algeria. He was teaching history in France when World War II began. Braudel joined the French military to fight the Germans but was captured in 1940 and spent almost five years in prison camps. Working mostly from memory, Braudel wrote his first major work, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, while imprisoned. He snuck his 600-page book out of the prison by sending composition book after composition book to another historian living on the outside. Braudel used this book to introduce his influential view that history has many different levels, or scales of time and space. He maintained that people should look at history and their own lives from different scales. For example, he divided his first book into three parts: geographical time, social time, and individual time. In the text below, he writes about each level.

This book is divided into three parts. The first part is devoted to a history whose passage of time is almost imperceptible, or almost impossible to see. It is man’s relationship to the environment. This is a history in which all change is slow, a history of constant repetition and ever recurring cycles.

On a different level from the first there can be distinguished another history. This history has slow but perceptible rhythms. One could call it social history, the history of groups and groupings. This history includes economic systems, states, societies and civilizations.

The third part of this book gives a hearing to traditional history — history, one might say, on the scale not of man, but of individual men. It is the history of events: surface disturbances, crests of foam that the tides carry on their strong backs. Big History: Universe Biography

The final effect of this book then is to divide historical time into geographical time, social time, and individual time. I hope too that I shall not be reproached or attacked for my excessive ambitions, for my desire and need to see on a grand scale.

Source #3 – “’Scale’ Tells the Story of How, and What, We Measure”:

Source #4 – “Powers of Ten”:

 Source #5 – “How Wildlife Films Warp Time”:


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