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Big Ideas

A Guide to the History of Everything

Cameron Gibelyou and Douglas Northrop

Publication Date - July 2020

ISBN: 9780190201210

464 pages
6 1/8 x 9 1/4 inches

In Stock

Retail Price to Students: $34.99

Big Ideas: A Guide to the History of Everything narrates the history of the universe, Earth, life, and humanity while analyzing how grand stories about the past, present, and future are crafted and framed


Big Ideas: A Guide to the History of Everything narrates the history of the universe, Earth, life, and humanity while analyzing how grand stories about the past, present, and future are crafted and framed.

In Big Ideas, authors Cameron Gibelyou and Douglas Northrop create a novel framework for thinking about the history and future of everything. They grapple throughout the book with issues at the intersection of the natural sciences, history, literature, philosophy, religion, and the humanities. In nine elegantly written chapters, they attempt to make a reasoned analysis of worldviews that underlie historical writing across many fields. Throughout the course of their broad and deep explorations, the authors bring a wide range of voices to bear on fascinating questions of where everything--from the universe as a whole to any particular thing within it--came from, how it got to be the way it is today, and where things might be headed in the future.

Big Ideas invites readers to think about genuinely big questions carefully and rigorously, separating received narratives about the "history of everything" from the basic facts discovered by scientific and historical study. The book treats scientific explanation and humanistic interpretation as partners: inviting those with primarily scientific interests into a humanistic discussion about science and history, and encouraging those with core interests in the humanities into a discussion of how humanities-based ways of thinking might connect with and apply to the natural sciences. This engagement helps readers learn a basic narrative of the "history of everything" while constantly provoking thought about big questions and the field of Big History.


  • Invites readers to think about genuinely big questions carefully and rigorously, separating received narratives about the "history of everything" from the basic facts discovered by scientific and historical study
  • Helps readers to master a basic narrative of the "history of everything" while constantly provoking thought about big questions and encouraging critical engagement with the emerging field of Big History
  • Serves as a broad-ranging and rigorous introduction to the intellectual world in several fields, providing readers with tools and resources for thinking as deeply as possible about the universe and their place in it
  • Invites active participation in the intellectual and educational culture of universal history and the fields it draws on, rather than giving a set of standard answers to big questions
  • A modular design creates flexibility for use in a variety of course settings
  • Complemented by forty-five color plates and twenty black-and-white illustrations

About the Author(s)

Cameron Gibelyou is a faculty member at the University of Michigan, where he develops and teaches original, innovative multidisciplinary courses, including "Popular Science," "Predicting the Future," and "Tours of the Past." He has taught Big History at both the high-school and college levels and serves as science advisor and teacher consultant for the Big History Project. His PhD is in physics, with a specialization in astrophysics and cosmology.

Douglas Northrop is Professor of History and Middle East Studies at the University of Michigan, where he teaches world/global and Big History, Central Asian studies, and the history of empire, environment, and culture. His other books include An Imperial World: Empires and Colonies Since 1750 (2013), A Companion to World History (2012), and the prize-winning Veiled Empire: Gender and Power in Stalinist Central Asia (2004). He is now working on a study of natural disasters along the Eurasian frontier.


"How do you write histories of all of time? How do you handle Time itself, or the moment of Creation? Or Evolution, or Causation and Contingency, or the spooky power of mathematical reasoning? And what is Entropy? In nine beautifully written chapters, Cameron Gibelyou and Douglas Northrop explore the perils and delights of writing, reading, and interpreting Big History."--David Christian, author of Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History

"Racing from the Big Bang to the present can make for a jarring ride, rocketing readers across enormous differences of evidence and idiom. But Northrop and Gibelyou positively delight in these disciplinary leaps. Rather than smoothing over the gaps, Big Ideas makes them integral to the story, exploring how each jump in scale plunges us into a new scholarly community with its own history and habits. In the process, the authors shed as much light on the evolution of the university as of the universe--and turn Big History into a lively forum for integrating cross-disciplinary knowledge. A game-changing contribution."--Kären Wigen, Stanford University

"This is an important book that should be read by people in every discipline. It is a thoughtful and insightful examination about our ideas of how we originated, where we come from, how we got here, what our conditions mean now, and where we may be headed. Written by a historian and an astrophysicist, it integrates ideas about the sciences and the humanities and seeks the unity that universities should be seeking. From physics to philosophy and from chemistry to cultural studies, this book contributes significantly to our ideas about what it means to be an educated person in our time."--Lowell Gustafson, Villanova University

"In this important book, Cameron Gibelyou and Douglas Northrop offer a conversation among different approaches to understanding the major ideas that we use or take for granted in everyday life and in scholarly fields. In both big and little ways, they examine knowledge from across different disciplines, answering questions and raising new ones. In each chapter, they invite readers to look behind the curtains and to join in the discussion."--Bob Bain, University of Michigan

Table of Contents

    About the Authors

    Chapter 1. Introduction
    A Brief History of Histories of Everything
    Information and Interpretation
    Organization and Layout
    Points and Purposes
    A Quick Tour of Ideas About Creation
    Creation Myths and Universal Histories
    The Challenges of Integrating Different Disciplines
    Example: What Counts as an Explanation? Simplicity vs. Complexity
    Integrating the Humanities and Sciences: The Interpretive Level
    Side note: Powers of Ten
    Space and Time Tell a Story
    Side note: We Are Intermediate-Scaled
    Value, Significance, and Scale: Small Matters Too

    Chapter 2. Universe
    The Size of the Universe
    The Centrality of the Earth
    The Moral Meaning of the Universe
    Defining the Universe
    Big Bang
    The Story
    The Evidence
    Side note: The Lithium Problem
    Levels of Confidence
    Gravity in the History of the Universe: Galaxies, Stars, Elements, Planets
    Ideas About Gravity
    Observational Challenges: Dark Matter and Dark Energy
    Side note: Unseen Matter and Gravity
    Gravity as a Metaphor
    What Is Entropy?
    Entropy, Order, and Complexity
    Entropy in an Expanding Universe, Past and Future
    Laws of Physics
    Limitations of Laws
    Laws and Discipline
    Why the Unreasonable Effectiveness?
    Physical Laws and the Nature of Explanations in Physics

    Chapter 3. Earth
    Forming the Earth
    Earth as a Planet
    Earth as a Set of Systems
    Earth as Alive
    Plate Tectonics
    The Idea and the Evidence
    Plate Tectonics and the Earth's Interior
    Side note: Does Plate Tectonics Itself Have a History?
    Shifting the Conceptual Ground
    To Ponder: Plate Tectonics as a Metaphor
    Deep Time
    A Brief History of Earth
    How Do We Know?
    Side note: How Did the Moon Form?
    Telling the Story of Deep Time
    To Ponder: The Anthropocene
    Ordering by Separating
    Accretion and Differentiation
    Sedimentation and Isotope Fractionation
    Ordering by Separating, Past and Present
    What Is Reductionism?
    Scale and (Anti-)Reductionism in Universal Histories
    Contextual Emergence
    To Ponder: Wholes and Parts
    Discipline, Reductionism, and the Overall Shape of Knowledge

    Chapter 4. Life
    Life and Levels of Biological Organization
    Life: Discipline and Reductionism
    Side note: Scales of Life
    Side note: The Same Entity Can Be Treated at Multiple Levels
    The History of Evolution: Darwin's Time and Before
    Natural Selection
    Modern Evolutionary Synthesis
    Extended side note: Evidence for Evolution
    Evolution as Information, Evolution as Interpretation
    Evolution, Progress, and the Value of Animals
    Evolution, Progress, and the Value of Human Beings
    Survival, Struggle, and the Nature of Nature
    Evolution: Interpret With Care
    The Beginnings of the Biosphere: 3+ Billion Years Ago
    A World of Microbes: 3 to 1.5 Billion Years Ago
    A World of Microbes . . . Plus Other Stuff: 1.5 Billion Years Ago to the Present
    How Historians Can Help Scientists
    Side note: Stromatolites and Hunter-Gatherers
    The Place of Humans in Life's History
    The Beginnings of Life: How, Where, Why?
    Life's History--A Biochemical Story?
    What Is Life?
    Science Is Philosophical
    Side note: How the Philosophy of Statistics Influences Cosmology
    Science Is Social
    To Ponder: Crackpots
    Science Has Limits

    Chapter 5. Humanity
    Human Ancestry
    The Search for Human Origins and the Anthropologist's Proxies for Humanity
    To Ponder: What Does It Mean to Be Human?
    Biology and Culture
    Side note: Cultural Evolution
    Biology and Culture as Interpretive Framing
    Stone Tools
    Hunting and Extinction of the Megafauna
    Progress Narratives and the Interpretation of Prehistoric Technologies
    Some Basic Properties of Language
    Origins of Language: When, How, Why?
    Side note: Language and Thinking
    Mind, Consciousness, Physicalism
    Extended sidebar: Other Minds
    Side note: Other Minds
    Integrating the Human Sciences: Human Beings and Being Human

    Chapter 6. History
    Universal Histories in the Context of History-Writing
    To Ponder: A History of You
    Evidence, Deep Time, and World History
    To Ponder: Southeast Asian Inscriptions
    Information and Interpretation in World History
    Side note: Following Up on "A History of You"
    Large Scales and the Individual
    Contingency in History
    Contingency in the History of Life
    Chance, Laws, and Contingency in Historical Explanation
    Side note: Counterfactuals
    A Brief History of the World in Three Parts
    Side note: Evolutionary Psychology
    Side note: Social Constructs

    The Multiple Contexts of Universal Histories
    Population Dynamics in the Era of Foragers, the Agrarian Era, and the Modern Era
    Malthusian Thinking About Population Dynamics
    Side note: State Formation in Sumer
    Extended side note: Easter Island

    Biological Reductionism in Universal Histories
    To Ponder: Population and Culture in Other Animals
    Multicausal History
    Determinisms, Free Will, and the Writing of History
    Relationships Between Causation, Context, and Contingency

    Chapter 7. Modernity
    Modern Changes: As Seen From the Informational Level
    Side note: Sociology
    Modernity as Interpretation and Storytelling
    Connection Goes Far Back
    Global Connections
    The Limitations of Connection
    The Idea of a System, and How It Structures Universal Histories
    Advantages and Limitations of "Systems Thinking"
    Statistics, the Social Sciences, and Modern Concepts
    Side note: Eugenics and Theoretical Statistics
    Projecting Numerical Information Wherever We Look
    Side note: Philosophy in Modernity
    A Brief History of Purpose in (Western) Philosophy
    Purpose in Biology
    The Advantages and Disadvantages of Including Purpose
    Purpose, the Universe, and Emergence

    Chapter 8. Future
    What Makes Something Predictable?
    Side note: Futurologists
    Causality and Scale
    An Example of Short-Term Prediction: Climate Change
    Medium-Term Futures
    Long-Term Futures
    Wildcards and Interactions Between Trends
    Interpreting the Future
    Problems With Progress
    The Future as a Site for Discussing Present Moral Standards
    Universal History as Context for the Anthropocene
    Sustainability in the Anthropocene
    Environmental Sustainability as a Matter of Social Organization and Infrastructure
    Side note: The Aral Sea
    Environmental Tradeoffs and the Future
    Technology and the Future of Human Evolution
    Technologies and Technical Limits of Human Modification
    Universal Histories and Transhumanism
    Criticisms of Transhumanism
    To Ponder: To Experience a Radically Extended Life Span
    Philosophy, Physics, and Time
    Time in Other Disciplines

    Chapter 9. Interpretation
    What Is Interpretation?
    Interpretation and the Integration of Disciplines, Worldviews, and People
    Interpretation and Universal Histories
    Measuring Complexity
    Complexity in the Physical, Biological, and Social Worlds
    Evaluating Complexity
    Naturalism as One Worldview Among Several
    Religious Worldviews and the Foundations of Universal History
    The Reasonability of Religious Worldviews
    Incorporating Religion in Universal History
    The Atheist and the Orthodox Jew: Visions of Reality
    A Many-Branched Stream


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