13 Billion Years? Yeah, That’s Big History

Richard Paige — Big ideas seem to thrive at Wabash, so it wasn’t surprising that the Big History symposium generated an enthusiastic response on campus.

To the uninitiated, Big History is multidisciplinary approach to the telling of history covering a span of 13.8 billion years – from the Big Bang to the present.

“It’s as big of a context as you could possibly imagine,” said Rick Warner, Associate Professor of History and the driving force behind the symposium. “It’s humbling because if you did the math, you’d only be talking about the human experience for the last five seconds of the last class in the semester and recognizing that all of this is a part of our history in some sense.”

(from left) Anne Bost, Wally Novak, Dennis Krause, Rick Warner.

Multiple disciplines were on display Friday, as a physicist, chemist, biologist, and theologian took turns equating their areas of expertise to the continuum that is Big History.

Professor of Physics Dennis Krause explained that the way we interact with light is a direct interaction with history based on the time it takes light to travel that distance. For example, a reflection in a mirror is you two nanoseconds ago, while the sight of the sun in the sky is actually from eight minutes ago.

“We have equations that allow us to look back toward the Big Bang, or we can attempt to look ahead,” Krause said. “We’re here now, so we can look in either direction. It’s like taking a test. We have the final answer; we simply need to figure out how we got there.”

Associate Professor of Chemistry Wally Novak described how chemistry fits in, emphasizing the formation of stars and chemical elements.

“The first galaxy, including the Milky Way, was formed one billion years after the Big Bang,” Novak said. “What happened next? Chemistry. Nearly 4.6 billion years ago our solar system was formed and chemistry continued.”

That chemistry allowed for the formation of elements and the reactions eventually leading to life on Earth.

That was 3.8 billion years ago. According to Visiting Assistant Professor of Biology Anne Bost, biologists don’t understand how the first cell came to be, but they are interested in what happened next.

“The conditions on this planet were just right for life,” Bost explained. “As a species, we can recognize a problem, and we can make purposeful change. We are capable of wondering what’s next.”

(from left) Sam Surgalski ’18, Craig Benjamin, Derek Nelson, Ted Peters.

For Warner that wonder is what makes Big History worthwhile.

“This is a liberal arts experience par excellence because we get to think in many different ways,” he said. “I can learn from different disciplines and my students can too. It’s a quintessential experience because our students have interests across the board. There are lots of different ways to think about what matters.”

Keynote speaker Craig Benjamin, Professor of History at Grand Valley State University, talks of Big History and what was on display in Baxter Hall as a way to share information, to engage, and collaborate.

“Something like this is so beneficial, so exciting, to see professors like these coming out to share what they are doing with everybody,” he said. “In the last four hours we’ve seen how physics, bio, chemistry, and religion are all connected. History is always changing. The challenge for Big History teachers is to keep up.”

Benjamin went on to say that one of the unique aspects of Big History is that everything relates to the same starting point – the Big Bang – a point driven home by Novak, who used a Joni Mitchell lyric from “Woodstock” to illustrate.

“We are stardust, we are golden, we are billion-year-old carbon.”