The Science of History


With all the troubles in the world, you’d be forgiven for giving up on humanity completely. I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s sometimes felt like running away to a hut in the mountains, just to get away from it all – I haven’t bothered yet, because I know it wouldn’t be long before I would be interrupted by some wayward product of civilisation.

However, every so often a story comes along that makes my inner optimist sit and up and start watching for Change. Recently, this hope arrived when I heard about the Big History Project. Like most great ideas, it’s been around for a while. For centuries, scientists have been trying to explain the complex relationship between the Entire Universe and we little humans – Aristotle, Darwin, von Humboldt and many others had a go. In the modern era, people like Jacob Bronowski and Jared Diamond (and plenty of others) have championed this ‘big picture’ approach to society.

Professor David Christian from Macquarie Uni is the main driver of this idea today – his original work was on Russian history, but he became increasingly interested in the concept of ‘Big History’ and taught one of the first Big History courses at Macquarie in 1989. Since then, it’s blossomed. The program is now being trialled in some high schools in New South Wales, and Bill Gates has gotten involved and started a global movement.

Why am I so excited? A rounded science education is so important for school students – making sure they leave school with a good understanding of the laws of Science and Nature (and therefore how the world works) is essential for happy and healthy societies.

Recent debates on science education in Australia have revealed a lot of promising voices and ideas on this theme. But this is a large-scale project that is already being implemented, and could actually make a difference. School teachers and students that have been part of the trial have given the course a glowing report…and what government could ignore that?

The course has been designed for secondary schools, but an online course for anyone to do is currently in development, which is even more good news. The course incorporates science, nature, physics, biology, art, geography and multiple other disciplines, and encourages students to think across different scales and apply that knowledge to their own lives and communities. You can watch Prof Christian’s TED talk here.

This ability to think of Context (my favourite word) and appreciate different scales of influence when tackling any problem or issue, is something that is often forgotten in modern curricula…as well as many other aspects of society. No discipline is mutually exclusive from the laws of Nature and Science, despite the way many students are taught, so it’s very exciting to see someone have a fair go at trying to address this!

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Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand ~ William Blake

© Manu Saunders 2013

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