Studying the history of time — from the creation of the universe until present day — seems like an overwhelming task to squeeze into a single semester-long college course. Such classes are taught at select universities in and outside the U.S., and are often called “big history,” meaning a study of history on a large scale across long time frames through a multidisciplinary approach.

Big history addresses what much scientific research theorizes to be the beginning of time — the Big Bang — and then chronologically outlines the history of time, continuing with the universe’s development, the birth of the Milky Way and onward until reaching the current digital age. Essentially it covers 13.7 billion years, which isn’t a small undertaking for anyone to study.

To more comprehensively outline big history, Roland Saekow, an undergraduate student at the University of California, Berkeley, and Walter Alvarez, a professor at the university, spearheaded efforts to develop an interactive website that would serve not only as a timeline, but also as

10 Facts from ChronoZoom You May Not Know About the Universe 

1 / Dying stars generate temperatures hot enough to create entirely new elements.

2 / Galaxy 3C295 is one of the most distant galaxy clusters observed by X-ray telescopes, first discovered as a bright source of radio waves.

3 / Gravity causes temperatures to increase radically, triggering the process of fusion that creates stars.

4 / Dark matter makes up 22 percent of the mass of the universe, and dark energy accounts for 74 percent.

5 / A piece of Vesta, a rock that orbits around Mars, fell to Earth in October 1960 and was recovered in Australia.

6 / It’s still unclear how the first multicellular life appeared. One hypothesis is that colonial protists congregated and began to specialize in their functionality.

7 / Ocean anoxic events occur when the Earth’s oceans become completely depleted of oxygen below the surface levels.

8 / Acheulean hand-axes are typically associated with early humans. They are typically found with Homo erectus remains.

9 / During the Paleolithic Era, humans were the first large land mammals to spread over much of the globe, showing their ability to adapt to diverse environments.

10 / Kaminaljuyu is a pre-Columbian site of the Mayan civilization that was primarily occupied from 1500 B.C. to A.D. 1200. It has been described as one of the greatest of all archaeological sites in the New World.

a platform to provide data about the universe’s pivotal moments. And in 2010, the ChronoZoom website was unveiled.

The website, currently in beta testing and developed through a grant from the Microsoft Research Division, chronicles in linear format nearly 14 billion years of history. Clicking on various points on the site allows the user to zoom into a specific time frame or topic, as well as zoom out for a broader look at the timeline.

“In teaching a course of big history, one of the hardest parts about the course is conveying all the time that has passed,” Saekow said. “It is very easy to say, ‘There is a thousand years here, and there are a million years here and a billion years there.’”

Broad topics on ChronoZoom are broken down into five main categories: Cosmos, Earth, Life, Human Prehistory and Humanity. The timeline includes short videos, which are narrated by David Christian, a historian and lecturer considered to be one of the most influential individuals in the field of big history.

The videos provide various nuggets of information about the universe’s history, since Christian’s videos address the various “thresholds” that define major turning points throughout history. “How many different species of living organisms do you think exist on our tiny planet?” Christian asks in his video about the creation of life. “The truth is, we don’t really know.”

By clicking on a film strip icon, users can listen to and watch virtual tours to learn more about particular topics like Mayan history or dinosaurs. The tours allow users to view the timeline as a narrator discusses the topic.

Chrono Zooms Ahead

To make the website a reality, Saekow and the ChronoZoom team had to create a database, an authoring system for the tours and what Saekow calls a “layout engine” for the circular images on the site that hold information about key historical events.

The entire layout was developed using HTML5 and is stored in Microsoft’s Azure cloud storage system. However, previous implementations of the site were developed in Microsoft Silverlight. Saekow said that by operating the platform in HTML5, the website is compatible with iOS devices like iPhones and iPads. Because these devices support HTML browsers, they can operate ChronoZoom without requiring a separate downloadable app.

The current site reflects most key points throughout history. But Saekow said ChronoZoom needs to become more comprehensive. Through the use of data connectors — application programming interfaces — Saekow said the site can more easily interface with larger collections of data. Essentially the data connectors can allow for the information in other databases to be imported into the ChronoZoom platform.

“This new platform that has been developed in HTML5 has the ability for a lot of people to collaborate,” Saekow said. “So with the data connectors, soon people will be able to add their own content, and we will see kind of a Wikipedia-like experience because people will be able to see the default database. They will be able to customize it, and they will be able to make their own timelines.”

The ChronoZoom team would like to eventually connect the platform to other databases such as the Library of Congress.

Big History for High School

To improve the components of a big history class for high school students, a collaborative effort was launched to provide all of the content needed for an online class. Called the Big History Project, the initiative was started by Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates and historian David Christian and takes a Web-based approach to the curriculum, eliminating the need for textbooks and helping engage students and teachers. According to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, eight schools participated in a pilot during the 2011-2012 academic year and 80 schools joined the initiative for 2012-2013. “In 2013/14, our hope is that any school or teacher could come to the site, learn about big history and ultimately configure a course that’s right for them,” Gates wrote in a blog post.

Big History, Big Impact

Lowell Gustafson, a professor who teaches big history at Villanova University, a private school in Radnor Township, Pa., said one challenge of teaching the subject at the university level is that students often feel that learning 14 billion years’ worth of material is a daunting task.

“When I first introduced [students] to the idea that we’re going to study essentially a 14-billion-year story that includes everything in the universe, they feel overwhelmed, that this is absolutely impossible,” Gustafson said. “They think that covering a century is virtually impossible, and to cover everything for 14 billion years, it just sounds ludicrous to them.”

Gustafson, who uses ChronoZoom in his teaching curriculum, said the website and others like it will help shape the way big history is taught at the university level because the information is presented to students in a more digestible format, especially for introductory courses. Although big history isn’t commonly taught in American academia, ChronoZoom can also be used as a tool to teach beyond one specialized field and integrate multiple science and history fields into one class.

To move ChronoZoom forward, Saekow said efforts will be made in the future to reach out to teachers and encourage them to integrate the site into their curriculum. But the primary focus currently is to continue adding data connectors to provide more information to the site.

“Going after these large institutions that are really great resources, that is the priority of the next year,” Saekow said.

Sarah Rich, Staff Writer
Sarah Rich  |  Staff Writer

In 2008, Sarah Rich graduated from California State University, Chico, where she majored in news-editorial journalism and minored in sociology. Since 2010, Sarah has written for Government Technology magazine and covers a spectrum of public-sector IT topics, including cloud computing, transparency, broadband, and other innovative projects and trends. She currently lives in Sacramento, Calif.