Little History, Big History

I’m in one of those seminars whose focus has little, if anything, to do with the course title: Advanced Stratigraphy and Tectonics. It’s actually about chance events that change everything, sometimes by going smashy-smashy (which I like), and finding other good excuses to put paleontologists and geophysicists in the same room, and what happens if you dry up the Mediterranean, and so on. This week’s assignment is to think about, and make a list of, the greatest events in history.

All of history. The Big Bang through my earthshattering purchase of new socks last weekend. Big History. It’s an arrogant idea that puts human society on the same conceptual scale as the whole damn universe. Did I mention my new socks? They have cherries on them. Those cherries can be situated in the context of modern nostalgia for Pac-Man and the dawn of computers, a 200-year tradition of Orientalism and forcing elementary school students to write bad English-language haiku about the sakura*, thousands of years’ worth of human fruit cultivation, or millions of years of flowered-plant/pollinator co-evolution. Perhaps, if we are sufficiently clever, we can weave my socks into a narrative that encompasses the slow gravitational processes of the galaxy – without creating yet another bland restatement of the anthropic principle.

I kind of like this idea, because I’m an arrogant person and I like my socks. So here are some events I think are profound and crazy important, with only weensy explanations (it’s approaching bedtime):

  • My birth. If the appeal of Big History is primarily psychological – questions about the past all pushing the same little button that says Wow! What was it like? – there’s no sense hiding behind a blanket of unbe-ego’d curiosity.
  • The Permian-Triassic extinction. The obvious choice, but it’s impossible to omit.
  • The first subducting plate. It’s fun to invoke plate tectonics to explain why Earth is better than Venus or Mars. Better! Let’s not shy away from the value judgment here, it’s not like Venusian resurfacing events are going to make anyone’s list.
  • Aw, fuck it, the Venusian resurfacing event. I’m such a smartass.
  • Initiation of Quaternary glaciation cycles.
  • Moon-forming impact. As cliché as the PT boundary, but again, impossible to omit.

So, gentle readers, at whatever scale you feel most comfortable with – what would you add to this list?

*I actually suspect that my socks are printed with strictly Western cherry imagery. But what the fuck do I know about art history? Almost nothing!


  1. kerrick wrote:

    The invention of pornography. (The first porn was probably made on or of rocks. Relevance!)
    That time that obelisk showed up and monkeys started hitting each other with clubs. (The obelisk was made of rock. Relevance!)

  2. yami wrote:

    I thought the obelisk was made of The Future? Or LSD? Or maybe Future LSD? Maybe I should reread 2001.

  3. sciencewoman wrote:

    The oxygenation of the atmosphere
    The Cambrian explosion
    My PhD defense (oh wait, that’s the future)

  4. yami wrote:

    Oh man oxygen and detrital pyrite and BIFs! How could I have missed that one?
    I’m trying to develop a coherent contrarian outlook on the Cambrian explosion, whereby it’s an inevitable byproduct of mumblemumble and therefore not as exciting as it seems. It’s not going too well.

  5. Rex Ferric wrote:

    All I can come up with is Crisis on Infinite Earths and Zero Hour (wherein most all of the DC superheros go back to the Big Bang to reboot the timeline, twice: the first time to fix a fragmenting multiverse; and the second to thwart a supervillain’s attempt to re-rewrite history — yes, I know my grip on reality needs work, but I can’t find my rosin bag…)

  6. Rew wrote:

    The Tambora Volcano Explosion, 1815. Preferably from a safe distance. It’d be neat to see an explosion big enough to change the climate for years.
    Thera eruption and subsequent tsunami. From a purely humanist viewpoint, it would be interesting to see how the Minoans dealt with it (aside from being dead).
    Okay, so maybe I just like volcanoes.

  7. yami wrote:

    What about the Toba supervolcano?

  8. Ximena wrote:

    The day someone first became self-aware.
    The first use of language. The first use of language to describe an abstract concept.
    Sometime in the ’70s when some nerds built an internet prototype.
    The not-just-for-whining-teenagers-anymore explosion of the blog.
    The day someone discovered God.
    The invention of spaghetti.

  9. yami wrote:

    I thought blogs had always been whining for twentysomethings!

  10. Ximena wrote:

    Well yeah, but now they’re for whining thirtysomethings as well.

  11. Gengar wrote:

    My vote is for the Evolution of sex. Good in so many ways (and not just the obvious one)…

  12. Lab Lemming wrote:

    But if Jupiter hadn’t accreted in a near-circular orbit, none of these other things would have happened…

  13. yami wrote:

    True, true. Are there dynamical considerations that lead to some preferred range of orbital ellipticity?

  14. me wrote:

    Hey hey hey

    i got a projet on Volcanos

  15. Justin wrote:

    Greatest events in history? I’d either go with Benjamin Franklin discovering electricity or the invention of nuclear weapons in the cold war. Probably the first one because it’s more optimistic. :D

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