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?
In-class observations
A few years ago, as part of teaching big history for small groups I started developing a series of observations that can be done by students in class. This report is reflecting on doing such local observations.
August 29, 2015 (with later additions)
In the summer of 2015, I was sitting outside our tent at the Klingbachtal camp site in the Palatinate, Germany, early in the morning, while the kids were still asleep, watching the sun rise. What could I do to use my time well?
I decided to examine the gravel patch right in front of me. I began to pick up little pieces of rock and examine them using a hand lens, which I carry with me on trips ever since taking a geology course in Italy in August 2010 organized by Sandro Montanari and Walter Alvarez.
These little stones turned out to be a treasure trove. I found a wide range of granites, gneiss, and composite rocks, which I tried to determine using the Smithsonian Handbook Rocks and Minerals by Chris Pellant. There were also a few little limestone rocks among the samples.
I do not know how these pieces of rock ended up on that particular gravel patch. Some of them were well-rounded pebbles that appeared to have spent a lot of time in a river. So my preliminary hypothesis was that these stones may have been mined from the nearby Rhine river, which would have transported them down from the Alps.
Yet most pieces showed sharp edges, which indicated that they may have been quarried and broken up, perhaps nearby. Whatever their direct origins may have been, they were there on that gravel patch clearly as a result of both natural processes and human action.
When I examined them more closely, I saw little white balls ensconced in tiny niches. My preliminary hypothesis was that these little white things might be colonies of micro-organisms feasting on those rocks. The more I looked, the greater the variety of such (supposed) colonies that I saw.
I began to wonder what the selection process was that drove their distribution on these stones. It seemed to me that the presence of water (which is why they seemed to like their little niches) as well as of certain minerals may determine this to a considerable extent.
The Smithsonian Handbook suggested to clean collected rocks using chemicals. Doing so, however, might destroy all such colonies of microorganisms, and, in consequence, all evidence of the interaction between life and geology.
This made me realize (again) that all observations, even the most gentle ones, will influence the results. Academic observations very much depend on the questions asked, and on the ways that have been pursued to answer them.
I also started to look at nearby-growing grasses. Such plants have evolved to protect themselves from grazers by reinforcing their structures with silicon-based molecules. This works well for the stems and leaves, with the result that humans cannot digest them because of our limited intestines (compared to grazers). In reaction the grazers have evolved longer intestines, so that they still can digest grasses.
It seems inevitable that the seeds themselves cannot contain that much silicon, because if they did, they might be unable to sprout. That is why we can eat the seeds of grasses, or products made out of them, which provide most of humanity’s calories.
As a result of this situation, grasses have evolved silicon-based husks that protect the seeds. However, animals, most notably grazers and birds, but also humans, have evolved to get rid of the husks and eat the seeds.
In other words, the need to reproduce is an Achilles heel of grasses, and perhaps of all organisms, which explains why grasses grow so plentiful in large stands. In doing so, they overwhelm their predators with their seed production. If not, as Charles Darwin observed in On the Origin of Species, the seeds would all be eaten before any reproduction could take place. That is why Darwin, following Alexander von Humboldt, called grasses ‘social plants.’
My rudimentary observations of the local geology and biology of took place over a period of about a week (we were enjoying great weather every day). They became ever more interesting, not only to me, but also to the kids after they had woken up. I realized that I could spend months, if not much longer, observing and analyzing that tiny little area, trying to figure out what was there and how this area had become the way it is now.
So why had I not done this before, and why was it apparently so hard to take such a step? Considering these questions, I began to reflect on the art of observations. What is it that we systematically observe, I wondered, and why would we do so, or refrain from doing so?
Do we perhaps tacitly assume that basically everything is known, because other academics have already preceded us with their studies? Or do we perhaps assume that such local observations cannot yield anything of real interest? Is perhaps also a feeling of shame that is holding us back from doing so, fearing that others may think that we are weird?
This experience reinforced my impression that although a great deal is indeed known, very little is actually known about particular local circumstances. This applied not only to our friendly camp site in Germany, but also to the institutions in which we are teaching big history.
What do we know about them and their surroundings in terms of their specific geology, biology, climate, and social behavior? Very little, I think. We may move around in such buildings assuming that most of it is known, yet in fact we are surrounded by oceans of unknown aspects that we tend to ignore.
How often, for instance, do we check a local temperature instead of relying on what a weather office tells us? How often do we examine which plants are growing in and around our institutions, or which rocks or other forms of geology can be observed? Which micro-organisms are living in the local ditch, or on the walls of our classrooms? Can we observe sunspots, stars and planets and perhaps even some of their moons?
I think that by introducing such questions into our big history teaching and requesting students to go out and observe during class time, we can turn our institutions into most exciting big history laboratories, while we would learn a lot about our immediate surroundings.
As reported earlier, over the past years I had started doing so. A list of possible in-class observations and experiments plus instructions elsewhere will be provided on this web site as soon as it is ready. Most students love such observations, and get very energized as a result.
But even during the course that I taught last spring I refrained from asking students to examine local rocks, simply because Amsterdam is built on a swamp, and as a result there are no rocks here that arrived without human intervention. And that did not seem to be real geology anymore.
However,  my experiences this summer taught me that this should not matter. The surface of the earth has been influenced by geology, biology, and human action, and that is what we should be observing as a result.
There does not seem to be an end to local observations other than one’s own imagination. These observations may be very relevant, depending on what one considers to be relevant. In pursuing this, I have very much been inspired by Alexander von Humboldt’s wide-ranging research attitude that he displayed during his travels.
Many of his local observations are still used and treasured. Mine will surely be less relevant. But if they may stimulate students to observe for themselves and reflect on them – in other words: actively engage in the scientific enterprise – they may achieve an important educational goal.
One final reflection: on that German camp site I also realized that even though observations may, or may not , have wide-ranging implications, they are all local in nature. It is always a human –or an instrument connected to one or more humans–, in one particular place that does the observations.
This applies just as much to deep-field photos made by the Hubble telescope of images of galaxies very long ago as to the observations by a cultural anthropologist who is studying a local festival. We should not hold back in observing things because our particular surroundings are deemed insignificant. They can all be significant and interesting, depending on the questions asked and the answers found using local observations.
Further research on the tiny white blobs on rocks picked up on the gravel patch at the Klingbachtal campsite made it likely that these were formed by silicate-extracting microorganisms called Bacillus globisporus Q12.
Such bacteria dissolve silicate rock with acids that they produce and use the spore minerals, while constructing these (purified) little white silicate blobs. One wonders why. Is that a way of getting rid of trash while using it to protect themselves with a silicate shell?
Further research on the Internet did not yield any data on possible effects by these microorganisms on the biosphere, including the weathering of rocks and purifying silicate, even though they seem to be present in many places (I also found them on similar rocks on the Gulperberg campsite in the Southern Netherlands).
As a result, one wonders whether these microbial actions may, so far, have escaped the attention of Earth System Science. This impression was reinforced by the fact that two outstanding geologists active in that field whom I consulted did not know what these little balls were. So perhaps there is a whole field out there open to further investigation. But this may also be sheer ignorance on my part.
Whatever the case may turn out to be, this experience has reinforced my impression that we may still know too little about the biosphere that we all form part of, and that we are dependent on for our well-being.
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
Other useful stuff on the web
Other big history
How to use the book
Course models
Learning goals and objectives
Teaching tools
Assignments (little big histories)
Answers to FAQs by students
Questions by students and teachers that go beyond the book
Examination models
Teaching big history