It is commonly accepted that history began as soon as we started writing things down, but this is merely a metaphorical line in the sand. The last few thousand years of cave paintings and tabloid journalism have barely recorded a fraction of our planet’s long existence – so what about “big history”?
CrashCourse aims to explore this often-neglected period of pre-history and attempts to explain what Douglas Adams referred to as “life, the universe, and everything.”
The Big Bang
“There are much broader historical questions in the story of the universe than can only be explored by zooming out to the ultimate scale.”
The channel itself is the work of John Green, Hank Green (yes they’re brothers) and Emily Graslie, who aim to add context to our understanding of history. They do this by shifting perspective, making the irrelevant numbers and statistics far more relatable.
As an example, the team note that the universe is in fact 13.8 billion years old – a number that’s impossible to contextualise. Using a scale where the universe is only 13 years old, it’s far easier to discern the meaning behind the earth being 4 years old, and dinosaurs going extinct roughly 3 weeks ago.
Exploring the Universe
“Simply looking into the sky is an act of investigating history.”
Roughly 100 million years after the Big Bang, the first stars were formed as Helium and Hydrogen came together in a show of force that shaped the ever-expanding edge of our existence known as the universe. So much of understanding “big history” comes from contextualising measurements – such as the light year.
Though our galaxy is 100,000 light years across, there are neighbours as large as 1.5 million light years in size; which means light takes 1.5 million years to travel from one side to the next. As a guide, the circumference of the earth is less than one fifth of a light second.
The Sun & The Earth
“When our star formed, its immense gravitational pull sucked in 99.99% of all the matter in the solar system.”
Shifting scale from galaxies to stars and planets, this episode deals with our two most important assets – the earth we stand on and that big burning ball of has in the sky (with the moon coming in a very close third). Current understanding suggests that our sun was created in the wake of several other dead stars, and that it’s made up of much more than just helium and hydrogen.
Our sun was likely the result of a massive supernova blast, which scientists have deduced from tests performed on meteorites that have fallen to earth.
“Even when we have blank pages in the annals of history, it’s still history. The fact that there are open questions doesn’t mean ‘it didn’t happen’.”
When it comes to the origin of life, saying scientists are a little “fuzzy on the details” would be a fairly accurate summation. While the building blocks are generally accepted by most in the field, determining how everything fits together is a far more complex task.
The idea that history that isn’t worth studying unless there’s something visible to study is well and truly challenged in this episode.
The Evolutionary Epic
“Evolution is one of the most tested, most utilised, and widely accepted theories in science. It’s backed up by literal tons of fossil evidence.”
Evolution is a process that has been taking place for 3.8 billion years, and 98% of species who have ever graced the earth are gone forever. It’s an incredibly important chapter in the planet’s development, and despite still being a theory, evolution is a theory in the same way as gravity is.
A few weeks ago we explored the basics of evolution and natural selection in detail with Stated Clearly, check it out if you’re interested in genes, DNA and the wider implications.
The universe is widely regarded as a complex place, but to our understanding nothing seems quite as complex as human beings themselves. Life is perplexing, but human history is both perplexing and directly related to us – which goes some way toward explaining why we’re so obsessed with it.
This isn’t the final episode in the series, subscribe to see where John, Hank and Emily take the series next.
CrashCourse on YouTube
Check out CrashCourse on YouTube for even more videos about history, ecology, literature, biology and more. For teachers, there’s the motherlode of learning resources and for the rest of us it’s a chance to procrastinate and learn something at the same time.
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