A pro-tip for TED fans: Watch the new talks by Morgan Spurlock and Salman Khan when they are released on video. Spurlock, the human guinea pig best known for a month of eating McDonald’s food, has a new project about product placement. Khan is a former hedge fund analyst who turned a few video tutorials for his math-challenged cousin into an open academy for self-guided learning.
While both talks were highly entertaining, it was a history lesson that proved the most engaging content from Day Two of the annual TED conference.
In Bloomington, Indiana, we are two months away from hosting our first TEDx event. One of the perks attached to organizing a local event is a video stream of the big TED event, currently underway in California. Since I don’t have an invite to Long Beach and can’t swing the $500 needed to buy my own internet stream, it was a pleasure to be able to watch a couple sessions yesterday at the local library.
Guest curator Bill Gates invited David Christian to talk on the TED stage after discovering his history class on DVD in 2008:
Big history literally tells the story of the universe, from the very beginning to the complex societies we have today. It shows how everything is connected to everything else. It weaves together insights and evidence from so many disciplines into a single, understandable story – insights from astronomy, physics, chemistry, biology, anthropology, history, economics, and more.
Christian, who developed the holistic course while teaching Russian history in Australia, showed the audience a wonderful timeline that puts humanity in the proper context of the 13.7B-year-old universe. We are practically a footnote on the chart, but Christian does point to humans as being another in a line of key threshold moments.
Christian identifies eight such thresholds in cosmic history:
- The Big Bang
- The stars light up
- A chemically enriched Universe
- The formation of planets
- Life on Earth
- Collective learning
- The modern revolution
The website includes a timeline that puts this history in the context of a single year. The first three thresholds would appear in the first week of January, planets and life occur in September, and the rest are at the final week of the “year.” That’s a lot of space in between Goldilocks moments, as Christian calls it, when everything is just right for increased complexity to occur.
In his TED talk, Christian singled out collective learning as the thing that separates us from other species. Collective learning is the ability to share our knowledge beyond the life spans of any given human who possesses it. Humans are the only creatures to have a history, a product of knowledge transfer over thousands of years.
With Gates involved, the Big History project is purely philanthropic. The goals include significantly increasing interest in science among high school students, fostering a greater love of learning (by attacking compartmentalization), and delivering on the promise of online learning. A small pilot of Big History will launch in a half dozen American schools next fall, with expanded partnerships next year. Applications are being accepted through September 1, 2011.