Origin Story: a Big History of Everything by David Christian

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Reviewed by Ian Lipke

Undoubtedly one of the most exciting books released this year with perhaps the most atrocious cover of the year. Buy the book and you’ll see what I mean about both contents and cover.

Following the successful streaming by Macquarie University of a Big History on Coursera it was inevitable that the book on which the telecast was based would be a winner. Consider the book in isolation from the series and the magic lingers. Even the telling of our story makes wonderful reading. Think about the prose in this short passage:

The storytellers are teaching history. They are telling stories about how our world was created by powerful forces and beings in the distant past….These are the ideas with long legs that can stay the course…The universe of the modern origin story is restless, dynamic, evolving, and huge…still under construction (7 – 10).

Origin Story is a tale of development. It uses what the author describes as Goldilocks conditions (areas not too hot, not too cold, just right) that allow growth to occur, and thresholds, key transition points where increasingly complex things appeared. But the numbers are vast and cannot be imagined so, in a very neat trick, David Christian provides a table in which the “real” figures are shown next to a column where the figures have been divided by one billion Hence Threshold One: the Big Bang occurred 13.8 billion years ago or 13 years 8 months ago depending on which column you read. Threshold Four: our sun and solar system formed at 4.5 billion years or 4 years 6 months ago.

There would be few who have no interest in when our story began and under what conditions. David Christian is not afraid of fitting snugly in confined spaces and tells us that our universe began “as a point smaller than an atom. How small is that?…it might help to know that you could squeeze a million atoms into the dot at the end of this sentence” (21). Another fine example of translation into dimensions his readers can grasp.

Apart from a Preface, an introduction, and a timeline, the book is divided into four arts. Part 1 called Cosmos tells of the beginning, the building of stars and galaxies, and molecules and moons. (and ‘moons’ you say? Read the book!) Part 2 examines Life in intriguing Little Life and the Biosphere and Big Life and the Biosphere. Christian likes these intriguing titles and I will not spoil his fun. Part 3 is simply called Us. Here be tales of humans, farming, agrarian civilizations, on the verge of today’s world, and the Anthropocene. Finally, Part 4 is The Future – where is it all going?

When you dip into Part 4 you might think as I did that we’re really a pretty smart species and must be heading on to bigger and better things. Well, I won’t tell you the details but, millions of years from now, we’re not going to be looking all that good. In fact, we won’t be looking at all as something will have turned out the sun. Let’s look at David Christian’s parting comment, party pooper? – maybe he is:

It will turn out that everything that seemed permanent in our universe was actually ephemeral. Maybe even space and time will turn out to be mere forms, mere wavelets in a larger multiverse. Entropy will have finally destroyed all structure and order.

At least in one universe. But perhaps there are more to get working on (305).

There’s a fine upbeat note on which to close this absolutely amazing book with the absolutely most awful-looking cover. Definitely one for the library shelves.

Origin Story: a Big History of Everything


By David Christian

Allen Lane/Penguin

ISBN: 978-0-241-33837-7

$35.00; 368pp

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