ChronoZoom presented at Cyberlearning Tools for STEM Education Conference

ChronoZoom 1.0 was demonstrated at the 2011 Cyberlearning Tools for STEM Education Conference in Berkeley, California.

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Session Details

Our knowledge of human history comprises a truly vast data set, much of it in the form of chronological narratives written by humanist scholars and difficult to deal with in quantitative ways. The last 20 years has seen the emergence of a new discipline called Big History, invented by the Australian historian, David Christian, which aims to unify all knowledge of the past into a single field of study. Big History invites humanistic scholars and historical scientists from fields like geology, paleontology, evolutionary biology, astronomy, and cosmology to work together in developing the broadest possible view of the past. Incorporating everything we know about the past into Big History greatly increases the amount of data to be dealt with.

Big History is proving to be an excellent framework for designing undergraduate synthesis courses that attract outstanding students. A serious problem in teaching such courses is conveying the vast stretches of time from the Big Bang, 13.7 billion years ago to the present, and clarifying the wildly different time scales of cosmic history, Earth and life history, human prehistory, and human history. We present “ChronoZoom,” a computer-graphical approach to dealing with this problem of visualizing and understanding time scales, and presenting vast quantities of historical information in a useful way. ChronoZoom ( is a collaborative effort of the Department of Earth and Planetary Science at UC Berkeley, Microsoft Research, and originally Microsoft Live Labs.

Our first conception of ChronoZoom was that it should dramatically convey the scales of history, and the first version does in fact do that. To display the scales of history from a single day to the age of the Universe requires the ability to zoom smoothly by a factor of ~10^13, and doing this with raster graphics was a remarkable achievement of the team at Live Labs. The immense zoom range also allows us to embed virtually limitless amounts of text and graphical information.

We are now in the phase of designing the next iteration of ChronoZoom in collaboration with Microsoft Research. One goal will be to have ChronoZoom be useful to students beginning or deepening their study of history. We therefore show a very preliminary version of a ChronoZoom presentation of the human history of Italy designed for students, featuring (1) a hierarchical periodization of Italian history, (2) embedded graphics, and (3) an example of an embedded technical article. This kind of presentation should make it possible for students to browse history, rather than digging it out, bit by bit.

At a different academic level, ChronoZoom should allow scholars and scientists to bring together graphically a wide range of data sets from many different disciplines, to search for connections and causal relationships. As an example of this kind of approach, from geology and paleontology, we are inspired by TimeScale Creator.

ChronoZoom, by letting us move effortlessly through this enormous wilderness of time, getting used to the differences in scale, should help to break down the time-scale barriers to communication between scholars.