Fri 17 Jun 2005
James Burke is, in my opinion, one of the most interesting and underestimated contemporary intellectuals. Most people know him, I think, more from his TV appearances than writings. And while he is a scientific journalist and a historian of science, his most important contribution is his insight into the way in which human thought evolves across centuries towards higher degrees of complexity and abstraction producing a myriad of inventions we all know – and some we’ve already forgotten.
History, as presented in textbooks and classes in most (if not all) schools in our culture is a linear series of events, punctuated by important dates (the day when …), mostly related to important people whose names anyone aspiring to be considered as an educated member of society has to know. This way of looking at history has certain advantages for schooling, the biggest one being that it simplifies it horrendously, flattens it so that there is not much left to be really learned from it. There is therefore no need to stretch students’ – and teachers’ minds over how the world came to be the way we know it. This would lead to problems in grading students’ performance, because certainly there are many valid ways of looking at this question, leading inevitably to differences in opinion. Instead, everybody is supposed to memorize a few names and dates, which is easy to check but doesn’t lead, of course, to any understanding. End result? A series of myths accepted as truths.
One of them is how inventions come to be. There is an image of scientists in his white apron bent over a table with test tubes and Bunsen burners or Albert Einstein with his unkempt hair in front of a blackboard full of hieroglyphical equations. There is a concept that scientific invention is an effect of a well designed processes with its result known, albeit vaguely, to the would-be inventor almost from the start. And if not that, then it must be a lone genius, with mild mental disturbance, getting a moment of epiphany while taking bath.
And it’s the myth that dissolves quickly as one starts to study the real history of human thought, as it goes through history in wild jumps and bumps, anything but linear, predetermined and predictable. That’s what James Burke’s excellent novel and TV series, “Connections”, shows.
Through the book Burke shows us subtle interdependencies, connections, that lead to a given discovery or technology of today. Since the invention of language and, subsequently, writing each of us is in fact benefiting from a huge base of discoveries, thoughts and creations of our predecessors and contemporaries. Each of our ancestors and contemporaries can potentially benefit from results of our minds’ efforts. That’s why in many cases people who discovered an effect or a natural phenomenon didn’t think it’s of any real value, but noted it nevertheless as a curiosity or something of interest. That’s why in other cases people dreamed of creating things that were not possible at that time, like flight, computers, television and hypertext – all of which crossed someone’s mind long before they were possible. At some point, someone combined what was a curiosity for ones, dream for others and out, suddenly, came what we call “invention”.
But then other combinations did happen. People who thought they discovered something of importance, which was not – so far. People who dreamed of things that are not possible – until now, or maybe at all. People who wasted their lives and died in poverty, but a tiny bit of their lives’ efforts lived on in an old book or manuscript and proved invaluable for others. People who enjoyed fame and fortune off things we now consider laughably wrong or just charmingly out fashioned.
One of the most important realizations that I owe Burke was that, while reading his book, it occurred to me that the general outlook on the world we, humans have has not changed at all during the history. You see, we have this view that people lived oblivious to how the world really is in the past, in say, Dark Ages, ignorant and believing in funny stuff like dryads or crystal spheres. But it’s not true at all. In fact, the world and the universe were always the same – practically understood. It means we do know how the world functions, why trees grow, why sun shines and sky is blue, why stars are and so on. There are just some few, tiny details that do not fit but leading scientists are working on them and the image would be soon completed, no worry. And the picture has been like this, almost complete, always. Thus all the funny quotations of 19th century scientists lamenting that they would be soon out of work since everything that is to be discovered surely will soon be.
So, if you ever wondered why we have computers, atomic energy, roads and cheap textiles from China – read “Connections”. It is written in rich, delicious language, and it reads well. It will open your eyes. And even if you’ve seen Burke’s TV series, read the book – it’s not a mere rewrite of the script. It just shares the title and the subject with the TV series, but that’s all.