Tag Archives: Big History

More logarithmic history

The idea of looking at history on a logarithmic scale has occurred to other people than me. Mark Ajita, a polymathic scholar of history, has just posted on the topic. Check out Zooming in On History: From the Big Bang to last month. Across 12 Orders of Magnitude.



New Year’s Eve, 2015

December 31, 2015, on Logarithmic History corresponds to the whole year 2015 in the history of the universe.

So for this final post of 2015, are there any lessons from the history of life and the universe about how we should live?

Going straight. Darwin’s theory implies that some organisms are adapted, as a result of cumulative natural selection, to survive and reproduce, often at the expense of others. We’ve seen on Logarithmic History how much of evolution has been driven by evolutionary “arms races,” especially between predators and prey. And we’ve seen that group-against-group competition is arguably a major motor of human social evolution. It’s possible to draw a grim lesson from this: that we must embrace violent struggle and population replacement as our destiny. But there are more palatable options.

So here’s a different take: At the beginning of The Godfather, movie and book, Michael Corleone, the scion of a mafia family, is set on getting out of the bloody family business, and going straight. In the story, he fails, and is drawn back into a life of violence. The tragic arc makes for a great story, but there’s nothing inevitable about it. By analogy, every one of us is the product of a long evolutionary history including generous helpings of violence. But history is not destiny: there’s no reason we can’t get out of the old bloody business of our species, and go straight.

On the Nature of Things. The Roman poet Lucretius had a different theory of adaptation. He imagined creatures being assembled at random. Some happened to have harmonious combinations of parts and survived, others happened to have disharmonious combinations and aren’t around any more. This isn’t really survival of the fittest, more “survival of the viable.” Lucretius extracted an ethical lesson from this theory: since life is a lucky accident, one ought to enjoy the pleasures of this world (in moderation). Some theories of physics imply that the suitability of our universe for life is just a Lucretian accident. Our universe just happened to be one of the rare ones that allows intelligent life to evolve.

Theories of the Multiverse allow for wilder possibilities. According to many theories of inflationary cosmology, existing universes occasionally spontaneously bubble off brand new universes. But the formation of new universes might also be artificially induced. A sufficiently powerful particle accelerator (vastly beyond anything we’ve got now) might be able to start up a new universe with deliberately engineered physical properties. The new universe would be causally separate from our own. so there would be no material payoff to making a new universe, only a certain moral satisfaction. You can probably see where this is going: just as we might create new universes, so our universe might be an artificial creation. (Cosmologist Edward Harrison actually made this suggestion.) If this theory is true (and no, I’m not prepared to make a bet on it) then our existence actually has a larger Darwinian purpose: we are the gonads (actually juvenile gonads at this point) of the universe.

Regarding the principles that should govern the design of new universes, and in the spirit of New Year’s Eve, I repeat this quotation from the science fiction writer Jack Vance:

The waiter departed to fill the orders. He presently returned with four tankards, deftly served them around the table, then withdrew.

Maloof took up his tankard. “For want of a better toast, I salute the ten thousand generations of brewmasters who, through their unflagging genius, have in effect made this moment possible!”

“A noble toast,” cried Wingo. “Allow me to add an epilogue. At the last moments of the universe, with eternal darkness converging from all sides, surely someone will arise and cry out: ‘Hold back the end for a final moment, while I pay tribute to the gallant brewmasters who have provided us a pathway of golden glory down the fading corridors of time!’ And then, is it not possible that a bright gap will appear in the dark, through which the brewmasters are allowed to proceed, to build a finer universe?”

“It is as reasonable as any other conjecture,” said Schwatzendale. “But now.” The four saluted each other, tilted their tankards, and drank deep draughts.

Jack Vance Lurulu p. 181

This is the last post of the year on Logarithmic History. Sometime after midnight, Pacific Time, I’ll go back to the beginning, and start tweeting the Big Bang. Happy New Year!

Reflections on Logarithmic History

A few final musings, on themes that have shown up on this blog, especially with regard to why history matters and how it relates to science. Historical Accidents. There is a school of thought that dismisses history as a mere collection of facts and dates, and doing history as postage stamp collecting; this contrasts with Science, which is about discovering universal Natural Laws. There’s nothing wrong at all with looking for universal laws, but it has sometimes led to people ignoring the role of historical contingency. For example, paleontologists for a long time were reluctant to believe that a cosmic accident had destroyed the dinosaurs. Biogeographers downplayed the role of wildly unlikely accidents – a few monkeys rafting across the Atlantic to South America – in creating modern animal distributions. Some of the most dramatic demonstrations of the role of accident in creating our world are from even earlier. We’ve known for decades now that our Moon comes from the collision of a Mars-sized body with a young Earth, with the debris from that collision coalescing to form a satellite. A priori, this particular sequence of events was wildly unlikely. And just this year (and too late to blog about at the time), we’ve been given reason to think that the early history of the Solar System was even more extreme. It looks like there may have been an early generation of “super-Earths,” bigger than earth but smaller than Neptune, in the inner solar system. Then Jupiter and Saturn did a gravitational dance – a “Grand Tack” – into the inner system and back out, that sent these early planets colliding with one another. Most of the debris of the collision fell into the Sun. A fraction coalesced to form the inner planets, resulting in a most atypical solar system. And going all the way back to the beginning: the great dream of physics, a Theory of Everything that explains the universe, may now be collapsing. Our best current theories of physics involve some version of string theory. But the equations of string theory have many solutions – 10^500 is a number often bandied about – and it may be just blind luck that we live in a universe governed by one particular set of solutions rather than another. Other universes in the Multiverse may be governed by other solutions, many inhospitable to life. The laws of physics of our universe, like the genome of our species, may incorporate a large dose of historical accident. Putting History Back into Prehistory. For some decades, a lot of Anglo-American archeology has shied away from doing culture history, from reconstructing the formation of ethnic groups or (even worse) the migration of peoples. The focus was supposed to be on universal principles of social evolution and ecology. To get a feeling for what this involved, imagine reading a history of eastern North America from 1450 to 1850 that is chock-a-block with facts and figures on village and town layouts, subsistence regimes, trade, and technology, but doesn’t bother to tell you that the country was invaded and resettled by outsiders. This view of the past has recently been upended by recent work in human genetics, which has demonstrated a recurring role for population movements and full or partial population replacements. This work in many ways hearkens back to the time when archeologists worked closely with historical linguists. We’ve found ourselves covering a lot of this work on Logarithmic History. We’ve also given a special place to innovative work using oral history and mythology to push back the reconstruction of the past. (All this inspires a question: James Turner’s recent book  Philology: The Forgotten Origin of the Humanities demonstrates just how central this discipline was to the establishment of the modern humanities. Is it time for a revival of philology in the humanities?) Historical Science. If scientists have sometimes been tempted to downplay the role of historical contingency in shaping the world, historians (I mean historian historians, not Big History types) have often been tempted to downplay the search for scientific laws of history. But I think there has been promising work lately in this area, borrowing from theories of multi-level selection in evolutionary biology to understand the rise and fall of states and civilizations. I’ve also allowed my own specialty, the anthropology of kinship, to put in an appearance here. All of this is intellectually exciting (I hope). But it also makes for some somber reflections, on matters ranging from “nature red in tooth and claw” and mass extinctions in the evolution of life, to ideological meta-ethnic frontiers and mass killing in the history of the twentieth century. 

What next?

Logarithmic History has involved mapping the history of the universe onto a single year, 2015, ending by mapping the year 2015 (in the history of the universe) onto one day, December 31, 2015. This raises the question “What next?”

Here are some options I’ve considered:

The Asymptote. We could continue the logarithmic scale past 2015. This would mean that blogging in 2016 would cover the events of most (94%) of 2016. Blogging in 2017 would cover the rest of 2016 and most (89%) of 2017, and so on, with history-of-the-universe time slipping further and further behind calendar time. This would eventually hit an asymptote in the year 2033. So I could pass on to my descendants, or perhaps to a monastic order or waqf, the eternal task of chronicling exponentially diminishing small slices of time leading up to April 2033.

I choose not.

The Logarithmic Future. We could flip things around in 2016: put the future of the universe on a logarithmic timescale, but with time passing more slowly at the beginning of the year instead of the end. We could carry this all the way to the death of the Sun or the Heat Death of the Universe. But this is more work than I am prepared to do. And, more philosophically, the presence of intelligent life in the universe introduces a great element of uncertainty to the future – more on this in future posts.

Reruns. In the end, I fall back on the easiest solution, rerunning the 2015 calendar in 2016 (adjusting for leap year, and for the fact that it’s one year later). I will repost my previous posts, and retweet my previous tweets on the appropriate days next year, with just modest copy editing. (Yes, there are embarrassingly many spelling mistakes on the blog.) I hope the venture finds new readers. (I’ve had a steady increase in traffic over the year.) And I hope that that some old readers will be inspired to celebrate some of the holidays suggested by the Logarithmic History calendar: moon-watching when Earth and moon are formed in January … feasting on shellfish to mark the Origin of Seafood By Means of Natural Selection … giving flowers on Amborella Day to celebrate the evolution of the first flowers … or enjoying homemade bread and hoisting a beer near the dawn of agriculture.

And in 2017, who knows? A Logarithmic History wiki?

History, Logarithmic and Big

David Christian started out as a historian of Russia and Inner Eurasia. He has since moved on to what he calls “Big History” — the history of the universe since the Big Bang. Big History has now generated several books, a DVD series, an International Big History Association, a TED talk, and a Gates Foundation funded effort to bring Big History to high school students.

The Logarithmic History project — blog and twitter account – is a small-scale affair with no affiliation with the Big History Project. Obviously, though, there are strong affinities between the two, and people who enjoy this site may want to check out Big History.

One attraction of Logarithmic History and/or Big History is that they let you explore a whole range of human knowledge at whatever depth you want. Human beings are naturally good at telling and remembering stories, so you can store a lot of information about everything from astronomy to geochemistry to evolution to archeology to history to pop culture as one long narrative, mapped onto memorable dates over the course of a year. The twitter part of Logarithmic History is meant for this. Or if you want to dig deeper, I’ll have more to say on the blog about a range of questions from “Where do chemical elements come from?” to “Why did the Industrial Revolution begin in Europe not China?” – and provide links for those who want to move from stories to theories.

Nobody is an expert in all these areas, so I invite readers to offer their input.