As humans, we are inherently interested in understanding our origins. Every culture has creation myths that try to explain how the world and its inhabitants came to be. With the rise of science, especially in the last several centuries, we are now in a much better position to appreciate and understand where we came from. It is a fascinating story that takes us from the beginning of the universe to recent times. To understand the major events and patterns of our origins gives us a much better appreciation of our place in the world today. The story of our origins is multi-layered, essentially a long series of origins, each building on the ones that came before it.
This website project, FROM THE BIG BANG TO THE WORLD WIDE WEB™, has been developed by us (Kathy Schick and Nicholas Toth) as a critical component of a long-range and multifaceted project to promote science education and large-scale evolutionary thinking. We are the founders and co-directors of THE STONE AGE INSTITUTE® (www.stoneageinstitute.org), a federally-approved non-profit 501(c)(3) organization dedicated to human origins research and science education, and are both Professors of Anthropology and Cognitive Science at Indiana University, Bloomington, as well as founders and co-directors of Indiana University’s Center for Research into the Anthropological Foundations of Technology (CRAFT). We are also Fellows of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).
Although our primary research focus over the past three decades has been on the origins and development of human technology during the course of human evolution, we also have a keen interest in physics (we own a first edition of Max Planck’s 1897 book Thermodynamik, which established the foundations of quantum mechanics), astronomy and planetary science (we collect meteorites, which have been exhibited in the Indiana State Museum in Indianapolis), geology, biology, palaeontology, archaeology, and history. We have assembled a personal library of several hundred books on a wide range of topics regarding Deep Time (sometimes called “Big History”), and subscribe to a number of professional journals (including Science and Nature) to keep up with the current state of knowledge in a range of scientific fields.
We wanted to present a way of showing Big History to students and the general public, outlining the major evolutionary events in the evolution of the universe, the Earth, life, and the human lineage. After making a long list of such evolutionary events, we thought long and hard how to organize these events. Having read the book Powers of Ten: About the Size of Things in the Universe by Phillip Morrison and Phyllis Morrison and the Office of Charles and Ray Eames (1982) based on the 1977 film Powers of Ten: A Film Dealing with the Relative Size of Things in the Universe and the Effect of Adding Another Zero made by the Office of Charles and Ray Eames for IBM, we realized by organizing time into powers of ten, with each successive time unit (our “Time Scales”) one-tenth as long as the one before it, we could make ten critical Time Scales: Time Scale One covering 10+ billion years to 1 billion years, Time Scale Two covering 1 billion years to 100 million years, Time Scale Three covering 100 million years to 10 million years, etc., until Time Scale Ten covers the last ten years.
Organizing the vast extent of the time of the universe in this way produces very coherent ‘chunks’ of time during which major stages occurred in the evolution of our world. (Such a system, using increasing or diminishing powers of ten, is called logarithmic in science and mathematics). Reflecting the accelerating evolution of complexity over the course of time, this scaling provides an ideal framework for organizing the sequence of critical events in the evolution of universe. As complexity in the universe increased geometrically over time (complexity of matter, biology, and finally human culture and technology), smaller and smaller time units are required to capture the major evolutionary events that have led to the world we live in. For each of the ten Time Scales, we have chosen the ten most important events within that period of time (essentially, ten “Top Ten” lists), making a sum total of 100 events that have been critical in the “origins of everything.”
Within this framework, event number 50 (the last event in Time Scale Five) is the emergence of our species, Homo sapiens, about 150,000 years ago. The first half of our 100 events (comprising the first five time scales), thus focuses on cosmic and biological evolution, while the second half (comprising the last five time scales) focuses especially on human cultural and technological evolution.
Without such scaling of time, conceptualizing the vast extent of time and sequence of events in the history of the universe can be quite difficult. If you imagine the history of the universe after the Big Bang as being a football field (100 yards= 13.7 billion years), then our Event 50, the emergence of our species, would represent the last thousandth of an inch on that football field! The next 50 events would be compressed within that last 1/1,000 of an inch. Carl Sagan in the 1970’s proposed a “Cosmic Calendar” in which he presented many major events in the history of the universe within a one-year calendar, with the Big Bang occurring at 12:00 am on January 1st, humans appearing at 11:54 pm on December 31st, and subsequent events likewise compressed within the last few minutes of the year.
Scaling time by powers of ten, however, allows us to understand the history of the universe in terms of major stages in the evolution of complexity. We decided to call our project “From the Big Bang to the World Wide Web: The Origins of Everything” to drive home the all-encompassing time interval that we are covering.
In 2007, we met with our colleague Geoff Conrad, Professor of Anthropology and Director of the Mathers Museum of World Cultures at Indiana University, and proposed a long-term Big History exhibit also entitled “From the Big Bang to the World Wide Web.” We began to meet weekly with the Mathers Museum staff to develop the exhibit. Funding for the exhibit came from the federal government’s Institute for Museum and Library Services, which was then matched by Indiana University and also by the Stone Age Institute. As the exhibit planning proceeded, we began to acquire several hundred objects for the exhibit by contacting scientists, searching the internet, and attending special events such as the world-famous Tucson Gem & Mineral Show, a great place to obtain meteorites, fossils, and geological specimens.
An important milestone in the development of this project was our participation in a conference held in Oahu, Hawaii in 2008 named The Evolutionary Epic: Science’s Story and Humanity’s Response. This was organized by astronomer Russell Genet and his wife, philosopher Cheryl Genet. They asked if we could organize a session on human evolution, which we did. It was at this conference that we first learned of a small but growing group of academics (historians, astronomers, physicists, geologists, philosophers, etc.) that belonged to a Big History Society that studied and taught, like us, concepts of Deep Time. Participants included historians David Christian (who coined the term “Big History”), Cynthia Brown, and Craig Benjamin; cosmologist Joel Primack; and geologist Walter Alvarez. An edited volume of papers from the conference, The Evolutionary Epic, was published in 2009.
We have shown our system of organizing time and evolution to a range of project consultants for feedback, including physicists, astronomers, planetary scientists, geologists, palaeontologists, anthropologists, and historians, many of them on the faculty and staff of Indiana University. We have discussed this project with numerous people outside of our University as well, including:
- Nobel Laureate in Physics and NASA scientist John Mather (head of the COBE project that first detected the subtle asymmetries in microwave background radiation after the Big Bang, and now the head of NASA’s James Webb Telescope, scheduled to be launched in 2015). We met John when he lectured at Indiana University in 2009, and our Physics Department arranged for us to meet with him afterwards to discuss our project.
- David Christian, Professor of History at Macquarie University in Australia, and the most prominent proponent of Big History. His book Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History is a classic work on this subject. We first met David at the Evolutionary Epic conference in 2008 and have subsequently brought him to Bloomington as annual Distinguished Lecturer of THE STONE AGE INSTITUTE®.
- Walter Alvarez, Professor of Earth & Planetary Science at the University of California, Berkeley, who, with his father Luis Alvarez (another Nobel Laureate in Physics), proposed that the dinosaur extinction was caused by the impact of a massive asteroid or comet 65 million years ago, creating a geological level with many times the expected levels of the rare element iridium. Walter is another great proponent of Big History and has developed a web site called Chronozoom, which allows the visitor to explore time at any scale. We have arranged for him to come to Indiana University in the spring of 2012 as a visiting Wells Professor. Nick Toth first met Walter Alvarez in the summer of 1993 and played guitar with him at the Bohemian Grove in California. Walter was a keynote speaker at the Evolutionary Epic symposium.
- Cartoonist Larry Gonick (a former mathematics graduate student at Harvard University) whose informative and amusing Big History volumes entitled The Cartoon History of the Universe have introduced many readers to Deep Time. He has written a number of interesting science-related works in comic book form. We first met Larry in the early 1980’s when he would attend our annual UC Berkeley archaeology picnics.
Our FROM THE BIG BANG TO THE WORLD WIDE WEB™ web site does not pretend to cover everything that has happened in the history of the universe! Rather, it provides a conceptual and chronological framework to reference the progress of the universe’s evolution from the beginning of time, as we know it, to the present condition of human life on Earth. In this trek through time, we deliberately become increasingly centered on developments in human prehistory and history throughout time, as the pace of human cultural and technological evolution accelerates over time (making many scientists propose that we are now living in a new geological period, the “Anthropocene,” in which humans have become a major factor influencing the ecosystems of the Earth with a dramatically visible and lasting impact on the geological record, starting hundreds or even thousands of years ago). For the prehistoric events, we also pose the important question “How do we know this?” and, for all events, “Why should I care?” to focus on how these events have been instrumental in leading to ourselves and the world we live in today.
This framework presents major landmarks in the history of everything in order to support and foster large-scale evolutionary thinking. It is designed to help people get a better sense of the chronological sequence in the evolution of our present world, to understand how earlier events present the foundation for the development of later events, and to appreciate the tremendous advances science has made in our understanding of the history of the universe, Earth, life, and the human species. We hope that it will inspire visitors to investigate further not only the events we present here, but also the myriad of other evolutionary developments that happened before, during, and after the events we highlight. We hope it will also make many ponder thoughtfully about what may lie in the future for the Earth, its ecosystems, resources, and life – including human societies.
Any shortcomings of this website, however, are ours and ours alone. We welcome constructive feedback from visitors, and we plan to develop, correct, and expand this website over the next decade (and Time Scale Ten, the last ten years, won’t be the last ten years for very long…). Obviously, no two people can know all aspects of the “evolution of everything,” so we rely on our professional colleagues to let us know of omissions or errors in the text, or new directions we might take in the future.
We also would like to express our deep appreciation to a number of people who have contributed greatly to this science education project: Reina Wong, who has contributed in a myriad of ways to the overall project, and most especially in the construction and finalization of this web site; Michael Budd, web designer at Mediaworks, and his programming associate, Eric Cox; Stone Age Institute Board members and affiliates, Henry Corning, Kay Woods, Alan Almquist, Jeanne Friedmann, Gordon Getty, Jack and Linda Gill, Martha Fuller, Rich Fuller, Charles Fuller, Sydel Silverman, Meg Starr, Karla Savage, Jon and Bonnie Henricks, Bill Kimberlin, Beverly Connor, Richard Babyak, the late Anthony Hess, Carrie Newcomer, Robert Meitus, and Mila Norman; Indiana University affiliates Rudy Raff (Biology), Beth Raff (Biology), David Dilcher (Biology), Lisa Pratt (Geology), David Polly (Geology), Claudia Johnson (Geology), Abhijit Basu (Geology), Nelson Shaffer (Geological Survey), George Brooks (History), Tim Londergan (Physics), Catherine Pilachowski (Astronomy), Kevin Hunt (Anthropology), Tom Schoenemann (Anthropology), Geoff Conrad (Anthropology), and Glenn Gass (School of Music); and Mathers Museum of World Cultures staff and associates, Judy Kirk, Elaine Gaul, Matthew Sieber, Ellen Sieber, Mark Price, and Kelly Franke; Indiana University students Blaire Hensley-Marschand, Fritz Hanselmann, Jenny Riley, Signe White, and Ashley Carter; and Rex Garniewicz (Indiana State Museum) and Amy Locklin. We would also like to thank the late Bill Cook, Carl Cook, Marcy Cook, and Ken Campanella.