David Christian: A Pioneering Mind

David Christian: A Pioneering Mind

David Christian: A Pioneering Mind


Producer of Macquarie University's new Pioneering Minds podcast series, Ben Mckelvey, gives us a look behind the scenes of the first episode where he talked Big History with Professor David Christian.

When creating the new Macquarie University podcast Pioneering Minds, I could think of no better subject than Big History progenitor David Christian to launch the series. I wanted the series to be representative of the University's commitment to interdisciplinary research and study, and I wanted it to have subject matter that would be of interest to a wide range of people, but above all I wanted the podcast to have subjects with very human stories to tell.

For those with only a limited experience of Big History, it may seem that humans (and especially individual humans) can get lost in the huge scope of the discipline, but if you drill down a little further, you'll realise it's quite the opposite.

I met Professor Christian (who greeted us in a finely detailed robe) at his house, on a leafy street in Sydney's Inner West, a couple of weeks before Christmas. Inside the house I found a scene of domestic bliss, with three generations of Professor Christian's family dedicated to the task of decorating a large Christmas tree.  

I set up the recording equipment in Professor Christian's study, which was furnished with one computer, one chair and hundreds of books in English and Russian, but just a few minutes after Professor Christian's definition of what Big History is, we were interrupted as David was required for the placing of the angel atop the Christmas tree.

After that the conversation started in earnest, and Christian was predictably fascinating. After the conversation my understanding of the soul of Big History started to form- and that is that the discipline is dedicated to the destruction of tribalism inherent of traditional history, and looking at the entire history of the universe as observed by that species named 'human.'  

In that context, humanity is undoubtedly the most interesting element of that story, but kings and queens, and presidents, and religions, and political and economic systems, and technologies all start to become a little insignificant. Insignificant, that is, until the middle of the twentieth century.

In the twentieth century a combination of technologies, and economic and political systems seem to become interesting in the aforementioned context, because they start having the capacity to destroy the two most interesting parts of the Big History story- earth's biosphere, and it's exceptional social climbers, human beings.

As Professor Christian explained to me in the podcast, it was when one of those threats was most threatening that the idea of Big History started to form in Christian's mind. The year was 1962, and the United States was objecting vehemently to Soviet plans to position nuclear missiles in nearby Cuba. A global nuclear exchange seemed so likely that Christian and his school friends solemnly said goodbye to each other one day after school, lest they never see each other again.  

It was that day that David Christian first thought about the madness of something so special and unlikely as the human species being sacrificed on the altar of nationalism.

Today that nuclear threat has subsided, but another potential existential threat has emerged- the change in the biosphere and the heating of the planet.

Even in the huge contextual plain that is Big History, our tiny village that is Earth in the year 2016 is a critically important one, as every member of that village- you, me and all the people who were decorating David Christian's Christmas tree- will attend to the problem of a changing biosphere, and feel the effects of the decisions we make.

It's hard to find a more human story than that.

Listen to Pioneering Minds now: Soundcloud or iTunes

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