Even if we didn’t grow up as science fans, all of us caught at least the occasional television show on science history. Some came expertly produced. Others packed the information to a very high density (by TV’s standards, at least). Others cracked jokes to keep our wits engaged. Others got us intrigued enough about a particular discovery to perform our own further research at the library or on the internet. But those of us who came of age during a run of one of James Burke’s Connectionsseries got all of that at once, executed on a higher plane, and with quite different philosophical premises. Designing each of his programs to examine a different nexus between several elements of science, nature, and engineering, Burke premises these narratives on the inseparability of human ingenuity, historical coincidence, and sheer accident. How, for instance, did we end up in a world of film projectors (currently being displaced by digital projectors though they may be)? For the answer, Burke argues, you’ve got to start with medieval castle fortifications. Then you work your way through cannons, mapping, limelight, billiard-ball ivory, guncotton, the zoopraxiscope, Morse code, and the phonograph. These technological threads all converge to give us the cinematic experience we enjoy today — or enjoyed in 1978, anyway.
If you enjoyed that episode of Connections back then, know that you can now relive it on a Youtube channel dedicated to Burke and his shows. If you never watched any in the first place, you can now catch up on not just the ten episodes of the original Connections, but 1994’s twice-as-long Connections2, and the final series, 1997’s Connections3. I recommend beginning at the beginning, with Connections’ first episode, “The Trigger Effect,” embedded above. It gets you into the mindset of Burke’s “alternative view of change” by breaking down and illustrating the very concept of human reliance on complexly connected networks. The program’s clear and fast-moving but no-stone-unturned methodology of explanation takes you through the New York Blackout of 1965, ancient Egyptian agriculture, and the oil fields of Kuwait. Reach the end of the third series, and you wind up learning just how much the Eiffel Tower has to do with the Elgin Marbles, Benjamin Franklin, London Bridge, and the ZIP code. Burke emphasizes that none of the historical agents involved in all these scattered small innovations that enabled the big ones — the ones with such effects on our modern lives — could have planned for things to go the way they did. His stories thus grant us more than a bit of humility about predicting the innovations of the future, built as they will be atop the kind of complexity that not even Connections ever described.