Each culture has its own origin story. They are often elaborate narratives that help explain the mysteries of our existence. “Big History,” however, is an origin story like no other. It’s all based on science – the same science that produced the James Webb Space Telescope that is now sending images of the very first stars and galaxies forming 13.5 billion years ago.
The Big History Project was started by Bill Gates and David Christian to enable global education in what they describe as “the attempt to understand, in a unified way, the history of Cosmos, Earth, Life and of humanity”.
This week, I’m offering a greatly simplified version of the Big Story story that can be shared with children. Put your storytelling skills to the test, perhaps sitting at night under a starry sky. Knowing this history can help us understand how deeply rooted we are in nature. This, in turn, can be an inspiration to protect the myriad species with which we have co-evolved as well as our beleaguered climate.
“I’m going to tell you the most amazing story you’ve ever heard. And best of all, it’s true. The story is based on everything science has discovered, and science is our best way to know. which is true. Let’s start by looking up at the sky. It’s a big universe out there. Bigger than you or I can imagine. If you’re anything like me, you can’t help but wonder how and When did all this start How come we are even here?
This story takes place over 14 billion years, which is an incredibly long time. It would take nearly 500 years to count to 14 billion. So, to make this easier, we’re going to imagine the story taking place over a calendar year. In other words, the story begins on January 1.
In the beginning, there was nothing, not even space or time. It’s almost impossible to imagine, but it’s true. Then, all of a sudden, there was a flash of very bright, very hot light. It was like an explosion, but brighter and more powerful than any explosion you could dream of. It was called “The Big Bang” – the moment when the Universe was born.
In the beginning, there was only heat and light. But, as the Universe began to cool, clouds of tiny particles called atoms began to form. These were hydrogen atoms – the main component of water – and helium – the gas we use in party balloons that float through the air. Eventually gravity began to compact these clouds of atoms. The temperature at the center of each cloud rose more and more until suddenly there was a huge release of energy and Bam! — we had our first stars. Billions of them. On our calendar, we are in mid-January.
Now the stars are like people; they are born and eventually die. When a very large star dies, it actually explodes. This is called a supernova. It gets so hot and its gravity so strong that helium and hydrogen atoms are actually squeezed into new types of atoms like oxygen, iron, carbon, and even gold. All the gold you have seen or owned was made in a supernova. It was the same for all the other atoms in your body, with the exception of hydrogen. These include iron in your blood and carbon in your bones. Think about it. These old stars were actually our ancestors. They had to exist for us to be here. We are made of their dust—stardust!
All of these different types of atoms eventually combined to form asteroids, comets, and planets. This is how our solar system and our Earth were formed four and a half billion years ago. We have now skipped until early September.
When the Earth began to cool, rain fell for the first time and accumulated in the oceans. Beneath these oceans, heat seeped from within the Earth, allowing atoms to combine in all sorts of new ways. Eventually some of these combinations were able to copy each other and form amazing molecules called DNA that can copy themselves. That’s probably how life began. DNA is what our genes are made of, and genes are the recipe for making all living things. We are now mid-September.
But DNA is not perfect. When it copies itself, errors can occur. They can be good, bad or have no effect. A positive effect could give a bird a larger beak than other members of its species and thus allow it to survive more easily. This new trait, which will be passed on to her offspring, may eventually give rise to a whole new species. We call this evolution.
For most of the time of life on Earth, living organisms were very simple. Like modern bacteria, they were made up of a single cell. Over time, the first plant cells developed the ability to use the sun’s energy to make food through photosynthesis. On our calendar, it happened at the end of September.
Then, about 700 million years ago (around December 5), living things made up of many cells began to appear. In the oceans, animals such as jellyfish have emerged. The first ancestors of insects appeared in mid-December, followed by the first fish. By December 20, the first plants had moved onto land when algae (algae) developed ways to survive outside of water. After further changes in their DNA, some of these plants grew into trees resembling giant ferns.
On December 21, the first real insects appeared. Some, like dragonflies, haven’t changed much since. Amphibians, like salamanders, evolved from fish that had developed the ability to crawl out of water and breathe air. Then reptiles such as turtles appeared on the scene, and on Christmas Day the first dinosaurs. The first mammals and birds appeared on December 26 and lived alongside the dinosaurs. Remember that a bird is actually a kind of dinosaur! The next day, December 28, the first flowering plants developed.
Sometimes there were disasters. Sixty-five million years ago (6 a.m. on December 30), a 10-kilometer-wide asteroid crashed into Earth and brought winter-like conditions to the entire planet. The dinosaurs were wiped out. Some mammals and birds, however, managed to survive and thrive in the habitats left empty by the dinosaurs. They eventually evolved into the many species we see today.
The first humans
By December 30, some of these mammals had evolved into primates that lived in trees and had fingers and toes to cling to branches. A group of primates, probably resembling today’s chimpanzees, learned to walk upright. They are the first primitive humans. They appeared on New Year’s Eve around 10 p.m.!
Due to changes in DNA, humans have developed much larger brains. They developed the language and became much better at learning, memorizing and passing information to the next generation. They also adopted wolves, which became the dogs we know today. Eight minutes before midnight, these early humans looked nearly identical to us.
Around 70,000 years ago, some humans left the plains of Africa and began migrating to new continents like Europe, Asia, and North America. Each migration involved learning new ways to manage their environment.
Then, just 10,000 years ago (18 seconds to midnight), humans learned to cultivate. With all the food they were able to produce, human populations grew much larger. Different groups have become more connected to each other. Written language was invented and humans learned to read. Just two seconds before midnight, Christopher Columbus made it to the Americas.
In the last second of the year, all of modern history unfolded. With cars, planes, television, telephones and now the internet, humans are more connected than ever. It also allowed us to learn faster than ever.
And, in the past 200 years, something else has happened. We came across a cheap and incredibly powerful source of energy called fossil fuels – coal, gas and oil. Fossil fuels and connected learning together explain the modern world we see around us. At the same time, however, the burning of fossil fuels is seriously damaging our climate.
So here we are today. It has been an incredibly long journey. Don’t you feel lucky to be here and know the true story of how everything – including you and me – was created? The rest of the story is largely up to us. How are you going to help?”
More information can be found at bighistoryproject.com. A previous version of this column appeared on June 15, 2017.