Author's blog

On this page, observations of various kinds will appear that are related to big history teaching as well as to big history in general.
Earlier blogs
- Big history and web site design
- Did Galileo overstate the magnification of his telescope? 
- Did Columbus falsify his latitude measurements?
- Reflections on observations in big history
- What about questions in learning goals?
- What to think about machines that think?
- Was the Juan de la Cosa map (1500 CE) an instrument to stake claims?
- How can we examine chance and necessity in big history?
- How did Europeans acquire the first accurate nautical charts and Arabic numerals?
- What about experimental history?
- How did European mariners chart unknown coastlines all around the world?
- Out-of-the-box thinking?
- How does it work?
January 2, 2018
In his book A Most Improbable Journey: A Big History of Our Planet and Ourselves (2016) Walter Alvarez raised two big questions:
1. What is the role of chance in history?
2. What is the role of Earth in concentrating gold and other minerals?

While Walter does an admirable job in illustrating these aspects in his little big history of the Earth, it seems to me that these questions could also fruitfully be explored in big history as a whole.
In my book Big History and the Future of Humanity (2010, 2015), and more recently in my author’s blog How Can We Examine Chance and Necessity in Big History? of 2017, I offered a few answers to Walter's first question. In this short contribution, I will focus on his second question.
Starting from his argument that Earth has concentrated gold and also other minerals to the extent that they could successfully be mined by humans, one may wonder, for instance:
Question 1:
To what extent would not only Earth but also our solar system, and perhaps even our galaxy, have played a role in this process?
Clearly, Earth does not exist all by itself. As a result, its concentration processes may be part of larger concentration regimes, first of all our solar system and the Milky Way. These celestial regimes, in their turn, have also resulted from concentration processes, namely out of more homogeneous and less concentrated matter clouds. Without these preceding larger concentration processes Earth would not have existed.
But would these larger celestial regimes have influenced concentration processes on our home planet in other ways as well? The answer seems to be positive. The impacts of celestial bodies onto our planet, for instance, may well have contributed to the concentration of certain minerals on Earth’s surface after it had taken shape.
Furthermore, the distance of our home planet to the Sun, and as a result the influx of solar energy, will also have contributed to shaping Earth’s surface, by allowing liquid water to exist for billions of years, thus leading to a great many concentration processes.
We may also wonder to what extent Earth’s position in our galaxy has played a significant role, if only by not disturbing terrestrial processes too much by supernova explosions. In other words, our rather benign galactic suburban environment may has been a prerequisite for these concentration processes to occur.
These examples may only represent a small selection of such cosmic influences. But clearly, all of this leads to an important conclusion: concentration processes have been occurring all over the history of the universe as we understand it today, in many different forms and shapes.
Such concentration processes would have started during the very early period in cosmic time when matter and energy began to spread unevenly across the cosmos, in other words: became more concentrated. As a result, we may be looking at a large, perhaps mostly unexplored, research agenda in big history.
Question 2:
To what extent can we understand life as concentration processes (including concentrating gold)?
Posing this question, even without any further research, immediately suggests the immense role of life in doing these things, first of all for its own sustenance, but also, while trying to keep itself going, by causing a great many other concentration effects. Pursuing this question would again constitute a pretty large research agenda.
Question 3:
To what extent can we interpret human and animal cultural activities as concentration processes? Same story.
Question 4:
More in general: should a systematic exploration of dilution processes perhaps also be included in such an analysis?
If, as argued by many authors, the history of the universe should be interpreted as ruled by the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which states that the major trend in cosmic history should be toward less order because that is a more likely situation, dilution processes should be the dominant trend, while concentration processes should be the exceptions.
Much like the question of why there is complexity in the universe, raised by several authors and further elaborated in my book Big History and the Future of Humanity, this leads to the question of why there are concentration processes to begin with, as well as what is driving them, against the general tendency of the Second Law toward more dilution and homogenization.
Would it, in consequence, perhaps be better to think of big history in terms of a combination of concentration and dilution processes? Would we perhaps next wonder which processes were dominant during certain periods of time in certain places, starting from the moment when the first concentrations of matter and energy began to emerge, as well as how this interaction between concentration and dilution processes has shaped big history both overall and in all of its details?
I do not want to go into any further detail here. But it must be clear that such an approach would open up a huge research agenda, which, if pursued, may well lead to a further refinement of our understanding of big history.
This situation illustrates once again that our current accounts of big history represent only a first beginning, and that a great deal of adventure is awaiting those who are willing to pose original questions and seek answers to them, always based on empirical research and careful scholarly interpretations.
This short essay came as a result of a suggestion by Cynthia Stokes Brown, gratefully acknowledged, who very sadly passed away last year.

International Big History Association
Un. of Amsterdam big history
Cosmic Evolution
Big History Project
Book: Teaching Big History
Bill Bryson: Short History of Nearly Everything
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