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New Books in History
My son Isaiah likes to play the "why" game. Isaiah: "Why is my ice cream gone?" Me: "Because you ate it." Isaiah: "Why did I eat it?" Me: "Because you need food." Isaiah: "Why do I need food?" And so on. Isaiah naturally wants to know why things are the way they are. We all do. Most of us, however, are taught that seeking these ultimate answers is quixotic. We say either that there are no ultimate answers or that you'd have to know too many to answer them. In this conception, there either is no story of everything or, if there is, no one can tell it.
Thankfully, Fred Spier disagrees. His pathbreaking Big History and the Future of Humanity (Wiley-Blackwell, 2010) succeeds in sketching the story of everything from the origins of the universe to the reason my son's ice cream is gone. In around two-hundred lucidly written pages he takes us from the Big Bang, to the separation of matter and energy, to the rise of elementary particles, to the formation of galaxies, solar systems, stars, and planets, to the creation of elements, to the origin of life, to the evolution of biotic complexity, to the emergence of humans, to the origin of society, to the invention of ice cream. What enables him to do this is a simple, unifying theory, namely, that all forms of complexity are the result of energy flowing through matter within certain boundaries ("Goldilocks" conditions). Everything with edges, a shape, parts, or an internal structure is the result of energy flowing through matter within certain boundaries and is only maintained so long as the energy keeps flowing and the boundaries don't change.
Historiographically, this book takes us into new and promising territory. But even more than that it is timely, for the energy and conditions that maintain our complexity--that is, modern industrial life--are both in jeopardy. We consume much more energy than we produce, and the kind of energy we consume is moving us out of the Goldilocks zone. If unchecked, the result of these two processes is inevitable: a loss of complexity, which is to say the destruction of modern industrial society. That's something to think about, and maybe even do something about.
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