1. What Is Big History?

Where did everything come from? How did we get to where we are now? Where do humans fit in? Where are things heading? These are questions that origin stories of different cultures have addressed for thousands of years. Big History attempts to answer them by examining the entire past of the Universe using the best available ideas from disciplines such as astronomy, chemistry, biology, and history. Throughout the course, you’ll explore different scales of time and space and view human history from new angles. You’ll learn what we know and what we don’t, consider our place in the Universe, and develop your own ideas for what the future may hold.

Big History is an exciting course that tells the 13.8 billion year history of the Universe from the Big Bang to the present. Before we really dive into the core concepts of Big History, it’s important to get an overview of what Big History is and what you can expect from the course. Ready to challenge your idea of what studying history is all about?

Scale is incredibly important in understanding Big History. As you already know, this course looks at history at a larger scale than any other history course we’ve seen, and studying time and space over 13.8 billion years poses an interesting challenge. One way of dealing with this challenge is by using different scales so that each topic can be studied from the appropriate perspective. In this lesson, you’ll watch a video on scale, and then take part in an activity that will get you out of your chair. By the time you’ve seen the video and finished the activity, you’ll have a good sense of how scale can affect the way we view things.

Origin stories are the emphasis of this lesson. Big History focuses on the modern, scientific origin story of how the world got to be the way it is. Big History is one origin story, and it’s important to recognize that many different types of origin stories exist. Some are thousands of years old and some are newer. They come from varying cultures and religions, but one theme runs through all of them: It seems that all humans are interested in understanding their origin to some degree.

Big History is an interdisciplinary course—in other words, it looks at the history of the Universe and universal change from a number of very distinctive perspectives. Each perspective represents one or more areas of study (we call these disciplines), and each area of study strives to answer a completely different set of questions about ourselves, our planet, and the Universe. No one discipline can know all there is to know about absolutely everything. It would be impossible to think of all the questions to ask, let alone have all the answers. Usually, if we look at any single object or event from the points of view of multiple areas of expertise, we can put together a rich understanding that goes far beyond a one-discipline approach.

In this lesson, you’re going to spend a lot of time thinking about yourself in relation to the Big History narrative. What about your life is like Big History? It may seem like nothing is, but in fact, there are lots of things that have happened in your life that can be compared to the major events in Big History.

Review Big History vocabulary.

Access a range of other materials to support learning about this unit.

Download the teacher resources from the Big History Project classroom version of this course. Text transcripts for videos are also available.