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Maps of Time: An Introduction To Big History By David Christian

Posted by Max Corneau   09/21/2004 03:25PM

Maps of Time:  An Introduction To Big History By David Christian
Maps of Time
David Christian
(University of California Press, 2004) 642 pages
ISBN 0-520-23500-2

Reviewed by Max Corneau

Map: A device used to navigate from one point to another. Time: The ticking away. San Diego State University history professor, David Christian, a leader of the “Big History” movement has successfully produced a grand unifying tale of history in Maps of Time. Christian’s stated intent was to construct a more unified vision of history and knowledge in general. His task was monumental and he admits in the introduction to a bias toward history. There is also an admission and here a caution, that Christian was not completely successful in keeping this lengthy tome to a manageable size at 642 pages.

Structurally, Maps of Time serves as an excellent introductory Big History text for its well organized chapter summaries and detailed further reading lists. The book is well indexed and the end notes comprehensively detail source material. One note is the lack of primary source material that may trouble some academicians. However, this style reflects Christian’s leading role in the Big History movement rather than a lack of research rigor. The two appendices also serve as excellent technical references dating techniques and chaos versus order argument. Importantly, Christian provides a key theme here (p. 505) that may be overlooked by eye-weary reader. On chaos and order, Christian states, “ I will argue that there are objects that recur at all different scales discussed in this book.”

Despite its lack of cosmological detail on the origins of the Universe, the nature of dark matter and planetary formation, Christian more than adequately serves his intended audience of historians in the first five chapters which cover the inanimate Universe. Christian appears to take great care in sliding the universal time scale from the unimaginably broad to exquisite in a way necessary to tell the story of universal, world and human history. Having received a doctorate in Russian History and published four books on the subject it is not surprising that Christian frequently references Marxism throughout the read in terms of tribute taking, proletariat, elitism, commercialization and statism for the purposes of exploiting the massess. While the Marxist underpinnings are understandable and sensible, Christian refers to the work of Thomas Malthus too frequently. There is an almost constant drumbeat of “Malthusian population cycles” throughout the middle third of the book. While it is true, as Christian reminds us, that Charles Darwin’s central inspiration for his theory of evolution was based on Malthus work, they detract from such a massive undertaking.

In an deft return to the astrophysical community, Christian completes his map of time by providing a dotted line of potential future courses of Universal, Galactic and human history. In an excellent example of his captivating style and creativity, Christian explains prediction scales as follows: “At this scale (100 years) change is complex and understandable, but we have no reason to think it is totally random. Besides, we have to think at this scale because our predictions will affect our actions and our actions will help shape the lives our children and grandchildren.” In the middle future, on thousand year scales, Christian explains, “serious prediction about the future of our species is almost impossible. We have little influence over these scales and there are too many possible futures. Our ability to predict is so limited that it is not worth putting much effort into the task.” On remote futures encompassing planetary, stellar and galactic timescales, Christian elegantly returns to his first position. “Yet when we shift to remote future….prediction becomes easier again. This is because at these scales, deterministic thinking comes into its own once more. Even here there is no certainty, but the range of possibilities narrows.”

Maps of Time is a worthwhile endeavor for any astronomer who has ever peered through an eyepiece in wonderment only to question his or her place in the Universe. This book is a must have for any astronomer who experiences long periods of obscured skies.