The Big History Project

11/12/2013 01:35 EST | Updated 01/23/2014 06:58 EST

Can we encourage students to be more enthusiastic about learning history? I think so, and so does Bill Gates of Microsoft fame. Gates has sponsored The Big History Project. -A free on line course for high school students, where Mr. Gates appears in the opening syllabus video, endorsing the course's unique way of blending science and history to give students the big picture.

I love it. Professor David Christian starts off with the big bang theory giving high school students an introduction to modern cosmology, that students usually don't get until university.

The precursor to launching the Big History Project was Professor Christian's TED video on the "History of our world in 18 minutes."

Here, stars explode, to create the periodic table of the elements, an obviously important tool that high school students have to work with all the time in physics and chemistry. And then Professor Christian uses the now famous phrase "the Goldilocks Conditions" to remind us how special the start of life in the universe is, when really, it has everything going against it, like the second law of thermodynamics and entropy.

The one thing I wish, is that the Big History Project will receive good annotations, that will focus on truths, even though they may give us a different perspective, and so a broader understanding and so a "Bigger History."

And so, not to be daunted, here are three suggestions for possible good annotations, to be included in the Big History Project.

The first suggested annotation is taken from science journalist John Horgan's book "The End of Science." (a terrible title by the way), where students can use their basic high school physics to appreciate that even the birth of stars "was difficult."

If you are a physicist with a sense of humour, you can appreciate that "star formation" too, really has everything going against it. For a gas cloud, usually the gas pressure pushing out is greater than the gravity pulling in, and that is why our gas giant, the planet Jupiter, is not a star. If the gas cloud is spinning, centrifugal force pushes the gas out. If the gas cloud heats up the gas pressure pushing out increases even more. And if you think about the big bang of the early universe, gas pressure and kinetic energy pushing out appears to be greater than gravity pulling in, all the time, even up till today. And so it is, just as hard to "lock up for certain" exactly when and what starts the first star, as it is to "lock up for certain", when and what starts the first living cell.

And so theories of star formation, usually require some trigger event or "outside agent", (like another exploding star somewhere, (go figure)), to create the implosion pressure of the gas cloud necessary to start nuclear fusion.

Hmmm..., an "outside agent" you say, Hmmm...

The second suggested annotation, looks at the time period of 100 B.C. The Roman Empire was in full swing and Julius Caesar was about to "cross the Rubicon" and overthrow the power of the senate to make himself Emperor. Some of what we know of this time period comes to us from the historian Plutarch, who lived around 100 AD and wrote short biographies of many of the famous people in Greek and Roman governments at the time. And it is thought Shakespeare read a translation of Plutarch's "Lives" to write his plays "Julius Caesar" and "Anthony and Cleopatra." One of the famous Roman senators at the time was Cicero, and he is considered, one of the greatest orators of all time.

And one of Cicero's most famous quotes is simply "qui bono", (who benefits) and this quote is still often used when looking at government legislation today. And one of Cicero's quotes that makes us laugh even today is "Children don't obey their parents anymore and everyone is writing a book."

When Cicero was a "Pro Council" for the Senate he received a letter from a Roman general touring Palestine that reported the Jewish people in Jerusalem were quarreling among themselves and were very disorganized. In short, neither the general nor Cicero were very impressed.

And so it happened, one of the greatest orators of all time, Cicero, missed reading some of the greatest text ever written, The Old Testament. However, another of the world's greatest orators, Winston S. Churchill, did read the Old Testament, and credited the Jews with a system of ethics that is the most valuable possession of all mankind. And it was Churchill, as much as anyone, who not only helped defeat the Nazis, but who also helped "fulfill Biblical prophecy", by helping reconstitute the Jewish people in Israel.

The third suggested annotation would be to start off The Big History Project, not with an answer, but with a question. Big History reduces the origin of life, despite the second law of thermodynamics and entropy, to "Goldilocks Conditions." The reason for this is the power of the meme, before the electronic era, that "Nature cannot be discontinuous and still be reducible to scientific explanation." And here "cannot be discontinuous" means we must assume that all of life descended from a common ancestor; the first cell (LUCA, Last Universal Common Ancestor).

And now we have the new competing meme, with the advent of computer programming and the understanding of the genome as programming code, that "Nature can be discontinuous and still be reducible to scientific explanation as "reverse engineering" to learn how the existing code accomplishes the design of the organism. The point is we need not assume any more, a common ancestor or common decent, for science to proceed. For science to proceed, we can now happily "reverse engineer" all we want and continue to learn and learn and learn. And we can now leave the questions of the continuity of descent vs. the discontinuity of design to the empirical evidence that will soon emerge. (Please see the Post Script.)

Big History starts then, not with an answer, but with a question: "Is this an intelligent universe and can we prove it?"

P.S. Here is a link to Craig Venter's new book, "Life at the Speed of Light: From the Double Helix to the Dawn of Digital Life."

Venter describes "life" "as a DNA software system" and what used to be called "Junk DNA", (my note- predicted as the accumulated detritus of random search and inherited genes now "turned off") Venter now describes as important code for control and sequencing. Of course Venter has been one of the scientists at the forefront of genome sequencing, and like many geneticists, he is very excited about new lines of research where sophisticated computer programs can now compare and analyze, one to another, the genomes of different species. And the good news is we can now let empirical data weigh in on the questions of the continuity of descent or the discontinuity of design, instead of trying to decide these questions a priori, like we have been doing for 200 years.

For example we can now ask, should all the genome of bacteria be found in organisms that have descended from bacteria, even if some genes are "turned off" in the higher organisms? How much of the DNA of organisms on the "trunk" of the tree of life should be found in the human genome even if some of these genes are "turned off?" And if small reptile dinosaurs evolved into birds, how much of the reptile genome should be found in the avian genome, even if many of these genes must be "turned off" as birds have a completely different respiratory system? Reptiles, like us, have a bellows type lung continuously reversing the air flow with every breath. Birds have a one way air flow into the lung, with the air leaving through the bird's body through tiny tubes in the same direction. OK, it appears birds were designed for flight. And now, maybe, we can scientifically prove this with the advent of comparative genome sequencing, one to another, the reptile genome to the avian genome to show either the continuity of descent or the discontinuity of design.

P.P.S. OK, I'm just an old reporter and anyone can write in and correct me if I'm wrong. But here is my take on the old myth that the human genome is 98% the same as the chimp genome, that has implied all these years the continuity of descent. (Professor Christian actually uses this statistic exactly in his short video on human evolution. And very possibly, it will be shown to be very wrong, very soon. But not to embarrass Professor Christian. I like him, and after all, he is an historian, not a geneticist, and he was using the best scientific evidence available to him at the time.)

This myth, that the human genome is 98% the same as the chimp genome, came about by looking at only that part of the genome that codes for proteins and assuming the rest of the genome was "Junk DNA", but we now know is important code for control an sequencing.

For example, let's compare two separate programs of a 3d printer. One program produces a "lego 3d car" and the other program produces a "lego 3d castle." If you compare these two programs just on the basis of the similarity of the types of lego blocks used, (proteins) of course you are going to get over 98% exactly the same.

However, if you compare these two programs, on the basis of all the rest of the code, for control and sequencing, this code will be vastly different, implying, of course, the discontinuity of design. The future that lies ahead of us, is that we can now empirically compare whole genomes and get whole answers.