I optimistically dedicate this, my first book, to those who read it.
If you enjoy this book while I’m alive, please drop me a line and / or kindly write a review.
If you have found it after my lifetime, thank you for letting my thoughts live on in your mind.
II. Preface: Is This The Book You’re Looking For?
I have read an editor’s advice that there’s no point in writing a preface, because most people don’t read prefaces and don’t know what they’re for! For those of you who fall into that category, the preface answers the question, “Is this the book you’re looking for?”
A. Why I Wrote the Book
I guess I’m what you’d call a “student of life.” Some people choose to love life by relaxing, partying, raising children, or making money. I love life by learning about it. Like many of you, I am curious about the world I was born into. To fully understand the present, we must approach it from the past. Yet that past quickly becomes distorted and forgotten. Isn’t it odd that we live in the last frame of an astronomically long movie, having lost most of the film?
I grew up reading “popular science” books and some of their history counterparts. 1 I began to recognize patterns. Some books were historic. They covered the collective memory of the last 100 generations or less. Early civilizations faded in vaguely from a great unknown. At the other extreme were books of prehistory. They explained the exotic origins of life and the universe but then fizzled out, sometimes without mentioning humans at all. The most common approach these days is the “history of discovery” format. Such a book focuses on a handful of scientists, dramatizing their debates and drawing out their discoveries like a mystery story. Casual readers love those books, but they are an awfully roundabout way of explaining the past. Only a few books, and dozens of disjointed magazine articles, detail the evolution of humans from the animal kingdom. As the past gets deeper and our ancestors look less like us, interest in this subject seems to diminish.
In 2008, I was on a quest to find one book that ties it all together. I was looking for a book that started from the big bang and then simply explained all the most important events that ever occurred, right up to the present. At the time, I could find no such book. I wondered if it was even theoretically possible.
B. The “Logarithmic History” Format
The problem is one of disparate time scales. Consider the difference between catching up with your spouse at the end of a day and catching up with an old friend at a high school reunion. The conversation with your spouse will focus on minutiae, details that are trivial in the grand scheme of things but are on your mind because they are so recent. When you catch up with your old friend, you don’t just concatenate 3,650 dinner conversations. You summarize. You explain the larger-scale circumstances that have changed your life in the last decade. Interestingly, the two conversations can be of equal length. The same is true of books. A book about the coronavirus pandemic can be equally long as a book about the universe. An author must choose his time scale.
Or … maybe we could represent the time scales with equally-sized chapters of the same book! If you are a former math major like me, then the word “scale” suggests “power of ten.” Ten was the perfect base for the content. By devoting one chapter to each power of ten years, I could zoom in from the big bang to big data in ten chapters. And by this point in my thought process, I was thinking in the first person. Suddenly, I wanted to write the book myself.
I call this format “logarithmic history”. A logarithmic scale, as you may or may not remember from high school, counts multiplications instead of additions. I have learned to avoid using the word “logarithmic” prominently in the book, as it gives most people frightening math class flashbacks.
A few years later, I invented another trick for visualizing these time scales. It’s impossible to imagine small and large scales simultaneously in linear timeline fashion. If you laid out a billion-year timeline across your tabletop, the last million years would be almost microscopic. It is much easier to pack large numbers into three dimensions than one. That’s why we buy sugar cubes packaged in boxes 3x6x7 instead of 126 laid end-to-end. The three-dimensional version of a clock is an hourglass. Let’s suppose that a one-hour hourglass is one foot tall. If we scale this hourglass to about 40 feet tall (while keeping the same small bottleneck in the middle) it will last for a decade, the smallest unit of time in this book. A ten-billion-year hourglass would stand 40,000 feet tall, deeper than the ocean. That’s monumental, but it’s conceivable!
C. My Directives
As I wrote this book (mostly through the 2010s) I found myself guided by a few directives.
Directive 1: Identify the most important events or trends of every time scale and survey the current scientific consensus for each one.
I defined “important” as (1) being a break from the past and (2) having a lasting impact on today’s human state of affairs. For instance, this book is less about dinosaurs and Cambrian explosion seashells than most natural history books are, and more about tracing our ancestral lineage from chapter to chapter.
Directive 2: Write like a narrative, cite like a thesis.
I considered myself a conduit from today’s world experts directly to ordinary people like me, a “translator” from technical language to plain English. Almost every obscure or controversial fact in the book cites a peer-reviewed journal article or other primary source.
As a disclaimer, “narrative” has a different meaning in science writing than fiction. It doesn’t mean that there will be characters, conflict resolution, or a sense of purpose. Nonfiction “narrative” is to be contrasted with the style of academic writing. A typical research paper has narrow focus, and it spends most of its time analyzing evidence and research methods. I took great pains to weave multiple strands of research into a big-picture tapestry with an eye on four C’s: context, chronology, causation, and conclusions.
Directive 3: Tell the story and the story within the story
Remember my metaphor of actors in the last frame of a movie? Halfway through the book, those actors started to wonder what the movie was about. Then they began rewriting it! Modern humans inhabit two worlds, the real and the imagined, each influencing the other. A main theme for at least half the book had to be the interplay between reality and belief. Sometimes this was more direct (creation mythology) and other times more subtle. I learned how much our thought processes are biased by language and human perception. For instance, our ideas about words like human, evolve, species, and extinct limit our ability to meet reality where it’s at. Our short lifespans and fleetingly short attention spans make it difficult for us to comprehend slow changes or complex causalities.
Directive 4: Be AWESOME
AWESOME is my acronym to describe the viewpoint and tone of this book:
- Agnostic / Atheist
- Scientific / Statistical
It’s all too easy to let belief take over reality. Any serious inquiry to arrive at the truth must be open-minded about evidence and not take any single culture’s beliefs as a given. We have to honor the scientific process and accept the answers it gives us. My AWESOME manifesto is a work in progress. I also welcome you to join my Facebook group, AWESOME thought.
I’m lucky that I found a few friends and relatives kind enough to act as single-chapter test readers. Their feedback truly led to revisions making the book more clear, concise, and compelling. Thanks to Robert Rafii (Chs. 10 and 3), Mike Paradis (9), Marc Fienberg (8), Anthony Zimmer (7 and 1), Andrew Spathis (5), Taletha Derrington (4), and Shad Fagerland (2). I especially appreciate Laurance Ginsberg (Ch. 6), the only stranger to participate. The grand prize goes to my poor old friend Mike Hoskins, who volunteered to read eight chapters!
Expert readers are even more scarce. I am particularly appreciative of professors Carsten Wiuf and Alan Templeton, who both wrote papers cited in the book. They were the only experts who accepted my request to check my characterization of their research. Professors Edwin Taylor and Harry Noller were kind enough to grant me permission to use images that they had created.
You can’t judge a classic book by its cover, but everyone judges a new book by its cover. This book wouldn’t be the same without the talents of cover artist Andy Meaden.
Los Angeles, CA
2008 – 2021
Twitter @Scots__Thoughts (two underscores)
A. History’s Ten Time Scales
Every chapter in this book measures a power of ten years. This kind of numbering is called a logarithmic scale, and it enables us to give equal attention to all periods of the past. Without it, an all-time history gets dominated by the longest time scales to such an extreme that the smallest ones become invisible. If this book were a linear timeline of the universe, then our species would be limited to the very last two words, Homo sapiens!
To represent the progressive “zooming in”, the chapters are numbered in reverse according to their logarithms. The first chapter in the book covers the universe’s entire ten-billion year lifetime, and ten billion is the tenth power of ten, so it is numbered as “Chapter 10”. The last chapter addresses the last few decades, and a decade is just one iteration of ten years, so it is numbered as “Chapter 1”. “A few” decades means “about three.” That is, events of the last three decades belong in Chapter 1. Events from four – five decades ago are logarithmically closer to 100 years ago than to 10, so they are more appropriate for Chapter 2, the last few centuries. 2
|Chapter||Time Scale (Years)||Dates||Events or Trends|
|10||Ten-Billion||14 - 3 BYA||Formation of universe, solar system, and Earth. Beginning of life and evolution.|
|9||Billion||3 BYA - 300 MYA||Sexual reproduction. Plants and oxygen. Animals, vertebrates, life on land.|
|8||Hundred-Million||300 - 30 MYA||Present-day continents. Fossil fuels. Dinosaurs and mass extinction. Mammals, primates. The neocortex of the brain.|
|7||Ten-Million||30 - 3 MYA||Apes and hominins.
Global cooling and ecological diversification.
|6||Million||3 MYA - 300 TYA||Ice ages. Early humans and biological human nature. The big brain bang. Fire and stone technology.|
|5||Hundred-Thousand||300 - 30 TYA||Modern humans. Abstract thought, language, culture. Natural religion and drugs.|
|4||Ten-Thousand||30 - 3 TYA||Interglacial and agriculture. Americans. First civilizations. Organized religion. Writing. Wealth and power.|
|3||Thousand||3 TYA to 1700||Classic civilizations. Empires and world religions. Renaissance. Capitalism. Logic and Science.|
|2||Hundred||1700 to 1990||Enlightenment. Industrial Revolution, computers. Globalism, socialism. World Wars. Birth control. Secularization. "Left and right" politics.|
|1||Ten||1990s - 2010s||Web and mobile computing. Today’s four superpowers. AIDS and genetics. Global financial crisis. Millennials.|
A “Chapter 0” would cover just the last few years. Since that is less than the life cycle of a book, I will maintain Chapter 0 as a blog-only chapter, an ongoing series of essays about current events. Essays about older chapters may also be relevant as our understanding of history shifts. “Margin Notes” for each chapter will be devoted to current discoveries about past events and connections from the past to the present. Over the course of my lifetime, I hope to expand each chapter into its own book.
B. Science and Religion
You can see that the history of everything unavoidably takes us into the epistemology of science and religion. The first half of the book is devoted to “origins” (or “genesis”, if you like): how the world and human beings came to be, according to science. In Chapter 5, we take an interesting turn when modern humans started to self-reflect on their nature and origins. Then they essentially inhabited two mutually influential worlds, the real and the imagined. Only in chapter 3 did philosophers begin to question human instincts about reality, but by that time every culture was already grounded on supernatural beliefs. In chapter 2, epistemology played a major role in permanently changing the relationship between people and their governments. Now, religion and science are playing out in the struggles of ordinary but diverse people to share the world.
Good scientists pride themselves on asking tough questions and accepting hard-won answers. They don’t claim to have “all the answers”. 3 Nature has mysteries. Some mysteries are so deep and profound that they have an eternal hold on the imagination. I single out four specific mysteries as the great questions at the frontiers of science. They are nestled inside each other. In decreasing order, they are:
- The origin of the universe (Ch. 10)
- The origin of life (Ch. 10)
- The nature of consciousness (Ch. 9)
- The origins and workings of language (Ch. 5)
These are the fundamental questions that curious people can’t help being curious about. So far, these questions have not yet been fully answered in terms of known natural principles. That is why they are so subject to supernatural speculations. The frontier questions are in fact the doorways that lead out of the suite of settled science, through the hall of hypotheses, and usually right into the room of religion. Today, these questions are all wrapped up in religious traditions that billions of people look to for solace, morality, and identity. That makes the truth-and-belief discussion an emotional one, especially when it is unguided. I hope that this book can help to guide discussions by clarifying what science has to say. Despite lingering mysteries, science has answered millions of questions that had baffled the greatest minds until recently. We now possess an astonishingly sophisticated understanding of events and processes that occurred well beyond our place or time – even in circumstances close to the frontiers.
An introduction often leads into a book by summarizing the events that transpired beforehand. That’s not an option for this book, which begins at the very beginning of time! If you’re ready, let’s just dive right in with nature’s greatest mystery of them all: The day the universe began.
Start reading CHAPTER 10: THE LAST TEN BILLION+ YEARS
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