Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Readings: Maps of Time

Well, leave it to David Christian to depress me. And on the large scale, at that. Christian's book, Maps of Time is "Big History." And Big History seems to be the newest (and probably the largest) framework ever. The macro-history is a blending of history and science, which provides a big picture view of the history and trajectory of the world, from the big bang and formation of the universe, to present times--and expanding outward towards the future.

Just reviewing this book seems like an impossible task. Let's just say that the majority of the book is a scientific history of the Earth which includes the physics of universe formation, the geology of earth formation, the beginnings of life on earth, and ends by tracing prehistory and then history of humanity, all the while highlighting synchronicity and repeating themes in science and human behavior, prehistory and modern history. He's like the Steven Strogatz of history. It's an overwhelming thing to convey, and to expect to keep in your head. But it isn't this part of the book that depresses me.

I do, in fact, believe that everything is connected. This belief affects my worldview, my historical inclinations, and my personal interactions. I don't think it's a practical way of writing most histories, but that's sort of beside the point. It's Christian's "Futures" section that is causing me pain.

Christian begins the chapter by comparing us (humans) to the inhabitants of Rapa Nui/Easter Island, and not in a good way. I mean that evidence suggests that the humans who colonized the land stayed, knowing there were limited resources, and still systematically destroyed all their resources and, in doing so, even their ability to escape the island. He writes that the generation who felled the last trees on the island in order to transport those giant stones knew what they were getting into, and still didn't stop the process. And here we are, on this tiny planet, doing the same damn thing.

Well, if that weren't enough to drive you to despair, Christian continues ever forward. He suggests what might become of humans in the next several thousands of years, and then moves on to what will happen when true Venusian global warming overcomes the earth and the sun turns into a white dwarf. And then what happens to the solar system and the galaxy, as they heat, cool and die. And finally, what of the universe? Most scientists have ruled out the 'big gnab' (I mean the reversal of the bang, of course) and agree that the universe will continue to expand, cool, and entropy will increase until the universe is a junkyard of cold matter. Eventually, no new stars will form and no energy will be present, matter will collapse into black holes which will evaporate and finally, no matter will exist around 10^10^76 years after the big bang.

So, why write history? Why do anything? Why did I read this book when I could have been reading a jolly good Wilkie Collins story?


Kate said...

Yes. Why, indeed. So, why did you read this instead of Collins?! :)

Miriam said...

It is an assignment, unfortunately! We won't be discussing it for another 2 weeks (classes start Tuesday) but I thought 'd get it done since the book's over 400 pages.

But I can always follow it up with some Collins, which always makes me happy.

So, how've you been?