James Burke (science historian)
James Burke (born 22 December 1936) is a British science historian, author and television producer best known for his documentary television series focusing on the history of science and technology leavened with a sense of humor.
1 - The Trigger Effect
- ... Any one of a million things could fail and cause our complex civilization to collapse for an hour, for a day, or however long. That's when you find out the extent to which you are reliant on technology and don't even know it. That's when you see that it's so interdependent, that if you take one thing away, the whole thing falls down and leaves you with nothing.
- These are the great ancient temples of Karnak, on the edge of the Nile about 450 miles south of Cairo. They were the center of Egyptian religion, built in the imperial city of Thebes, when the Egyptian empire was at its height, the greatest power in the world. This was the New York of its time. The temples were built over a period of 2,000 years, each pharaoh adding his bit, leaving his name in stone, to last forever. Inside the temple domain, there were 65 towns, 433 gardens & orchards, 400,000 animals, and it took 80,000 people just to run the place. Small wonder that centuries afterwards the Greeks and Romans came here and gawked like peasants at a civilisation that made their efforts look like well-dressed mud huts. It still has that effect today. You come here from the great modern cities, full of the immense power of modern technology at your finger tips, press a button, turn a switch. And this place... stops you dead.
- The Egyptians built an empire and ran it with a handful of technology... the wheel, irrigation canals, the loom, the calendar, pen & ink, some cutting tools, some simple metallurgy, and the plough, the invention that triggered it all off. And yet look how complex and sophisticated their civilisation was. And how soon it happened, after that first man-made harvest. The Egyptian plough and those of the few other civilisations sprang up around the world at the same time... Gave us control over nature... And at the same time, tied us for good, to the things that we invent so that tomorrow will be better than today. The Egyptians knew that. That's why they had gods. To make sure that their systems didn't fail.
- Karnak was the first great statement of what technology could do with unlimited manpower and the approval of the gods. Ironically, the modern equivalent lies, again, in the desert. This time, the nomads also settled by a river... a river of oil. But what had took the pharaohs 4,000 years to build took the Kuwaitis 4,000 days. What's happened in Kuwait, the change from a nomadic existence to being able to buy and use everything modern technology has to offer has come in much less than one generation. Kuwait represents the immense power of technology used in a way most of us have never experienced, because we've lived with the kind of change it can bring for more than a hundred years. Here it's been focused. Change has been instant and total. Kuwait has suddenly become like New York, or any other of the great urban islands on technology, totally dependent on that technology. Like them, without it, Kuwait would return to the desert.
- You see how increasingly the only way we in the advanced industrial nations, with our bewildering technology network, can survive, is by selling bewilderment and dependence on technology to the rest of the world. Or is it not bewilderment and dependence, but a healthier wealthier better way of living than the old way? And, yet, whether or not you dress up technology to look local, the technology network is the same. And as it spreads, will it spread the ability to use machines, as we do, without understanding them?
- An invention acts rather like a trigger, because, once it's there, it changes the way things are, and that change stimulates the production of another invention, which in turn, causes change, and so on. Why those inventions happened, between 6,000 years ago and now, where they happened and when they happened, is a fascinating blend of accident, genius, craftsmanship, geography, religion, war, money, ambition... Above all, at some point, everybody is involved in the business of change, not just the so-called "great men." Given what they knew at the time, and a moderate amount of what's up here [pointing to head], I hope to show you that you or I could have done just what they did, or come close to it, because at no time did an invention come out of thin air into somebody's head, [snaps fingers] like that. You just had to put a number of bits and pieces, that were already there, together in the right way.
- Following the trail of events from some point in the past to a piece of modern technology is rather like a detective story, with you as the detective, knowing only as much as the people in the past do, and like them having to guess at what was likely to happen next.
2 - Death in The Morning
- I would say it was a pretty safe bet, that the one magic wish most people would like to be granted would be to be able to see into the future. Think what it would mean. And backing the right horse! But we can't. We have to guess about tomorrow and we have to act on that guess, and it's never been any different. And that's why following the trail from the past up to the emergence of the modern technology that surrounds us in our daily lives, and affects our lives, is rather like a detective story. Because, at no time in the past, did anybody have anything to do with the business of inventing or changing things, ever know what the full effect of his actions would be. He just went ahead and did what he did for his own reasons, like we do. That's how change comes about. And it's like a detective story because if you follow the trail from the past up to a modern man-made object, the story is full of sudden twists and false clues and guesswork, and you never know where the story is heading until the very last minute.
- Today, the nuclear bomb is like a Sword of Damocles hanging over us. Will it fall again?
9 - Countdown
- Television tells us everyday that we live in a world we don't understand. And yet in the main it does little to explain that world. It tells us of new products that make the products we have either old-fashioned or obsolete. Above all, if today we are aware of how fast the world around us is changing, it's because television acts as a relentless reminder of that fact.
- Does the cycle that goes, interest in something, involvement in it, tiring of it, and rejection of it, looking into something else, get shorter every decade?
- Edison invented inventing.
- If you believe that science and technology have given us the highest standard of living in history or that they have trapped us inside of a machine we can't escape from, we live in a situation we inherited, as a result of a long and complex series of events through history. At no time in the past could anybody have known that what they were doing then would end up like this now.
- You can only know where you're going if you know where you've been.
10 - Yesterday, Tomorrow and You
- This bomber stands for the interdependent world we have made for ourselves; where the rate of change accelerates every second because every one of man's inventions acts like a trigger to cause change.
- The question is in what way are the triggers around us likely to operate to cause things to change -- for better or worse. And, is there anything we can learn from the way that happened before, so we can teach ourselves to look for and recognize the signs of change? The trouble is, that's not easy when you have been taught as I was, for example, that things in the past happened in straight-forward lines. I mean, take one oversimple example of what I'm talking about: the idea of putting the past into packaged units -- subjects, like agriculture. The minute you look at this apparently clear-cut view of things, you see the holes. I mean, look at the tractor. Oh sure, it worked in the fields, but is it a part of the history of agriculture or a dozen other things? The steam engine, the electric spark, petroleum development, rubber technology. It's a countrified car. And, the fertilizer that follows; it doesn't follow! That came from as much as anything else from a fellow trying to make artificial diamonds. And here's another old favorite: Eureka! Great Inventors You know, the lonely genius in the garage with a lightbulb that goes ping in his head. Well, if you've seen anything of this series, you'll know what a wrong approach to things that is. None of these guys did anything by themselves; they borrowed from other people's work. And how can you say when a golden age of anything started and stopped? The age of steam certainly wasn't started by James Watt; nor did the fellow whose engine he was trying to repair -- Newcomen, nor did his predecessor Savorey, nor did his predecessor Papert. And Papert was only doing what he was doing because they had trouble draining the mines. You see what I'm trying to say? This makes you think in straight lines. And if today doesn't happen in straight lines -- think of your own experience -- why should the past have? That's part of what this series has tried to show: that the past zig-zagged along -- just like the present does -- with nobody knowing what's coming next. Only we do it more complicatedly, and it's because our lives are that much more complex than theirs were that it's worth bothering about the past. Because if you don't know how you got somewhere, you don't know where you are. And we are at the end of a journey -- the journey from the past.
- Never before have so many people understood so little about so much.
- So, in the end, have we learned anything from this look at why the world turned out the way it is, that's of any use to us in our future? Something, I think. That the key to why things change is the key to everything. How easy is it for knowledge to spread? And that, in the past, the people who made change happen, were the people who had that knowledge, whether they were craftsmen, or kings. Today, the people who make things change, the people who have that knowledge, are the scientists and the technologists, who are the true driving force of humanity. And before you say what about the Beethovens and the Michelangelos? Let me suggest something with which you may disagree violently: that at best, the products of human emotion, art, philosophy, politics, music, literature, are interpretations of the world, that tell you more about the guy who's talking, than about the world he's talking about. Second hand views of the world, made third hand by your interpretation of them. Things like that [art book] as opposed to this [transparency of some filaments]. Know what it is? It's a bunch of amino acids, the stuff that goes to built up a worm, or a geranium, or you. This stuff [art book] is easier to take, isn't it? Understandable. Got people in it. This, [transparency'] scientific knowledge is hard to take, because it removes the reassuring crutches of opinion, ideology, and leaves only what is demonstrably true about the world. And the reason why so many people may be thinking about throwing away those crutches is because thanks to science and technology they have begun to know that they don't know so much. And that, if they are to have more say in what happens to their lives, more freedom to develop their abilities to the full, they have to be helped towards that knowledge, that they know exists, and that they don't possess. And by helped towards that knowledge I don't mean give everybody a computer and say: help yourself. Where would you even start? No, I mean trying to find ways to translate the knowledge. To teach us to ask the right questions. See, we're on the edge of a revolution in communications technology that is going to make that more possible than ever before. Or, if that’s not done, to cause an explosion of knowledge that will leave those of us who don't have access to it, as powerless as if we were deaf, dumb and blind. And I don't think most people want that. So, what do we do about it? I don't know. But maybe a good start would be to recognize within yourself the ability to understand anything. Because that ability is there, as long as it is explained clearly enough. And then go and ask for explanations. And if you're thinking, right now, what do I ask for? Ask yourself, if there is anything in your live that you want changed. That's where to start.
The Day the Universe Changed (1985)
- We expect to learn new tricks because one of our science based abilities is being able to predict. That after all is what science is about. Learning enough about how a thing works so you'll know what comes next. Because as we all know everything obeys the universal laws, all you need is to understand the laws.
- Copernicus published his manuscript in 1543 just in time for the council of Trent. So you're a church father and what this new system of Copernicus is saying is this: The Earth moves, although the Bible says it doesn't. It's no longer at the center of God's universe, although the Bible says it is. It's a planet, so heaven and Earth are no longer separate. And Aristotle was wrong, although church authority depends on him being right. You're a church father and you pick up this subversive, heretical, revolutionary piece of lunacy and you start foaming at the mouth, right? Wrong. When the council finally got around to reading Copernicus they were delighted. His new system had made calendar reform more precise. And the business of it turning every basic belief about the universe on its head? A mere fairytale since from the church's viewpoint he was talking nonsense. Astronomy drew lines and circles in the sky but they weren't really there, they're a mathematical convenience for measuring or teaching astronomy. While the Copernicus system might well have been brilliant mathematics, no one thought for a minute that he was actually suggesting the earth was whizzing around the sun. That kind of talk would blow holes in everything.
- Take movement for example. Forces acting up, down, or from side to side. You make theories to explain it all, but you might well remember that it was you that invented them all. For Mach there was no reason to believe the rest of the cosmos was doing what your little bit was doing, so science should only describe not try to explain. Even description is relative. Am I moving or is the back ground? Or take the position of a star. It depends on the position you see it from, which depends on the date and time, which in turn depends on the position of the earth, in a solar orbit, in a solar system, moving around the edge of a Galaxy which may be moving away from other Galaxies. Say that you've decided that I'm moving and the background is standing still. Is the background moving relative to something else?
- Einstein's theory was that everything about the laws of the universe and nature was relative. What you observe about something depends greatly upon your frame of reference at the time. That's why I can stand here in this concord cabin and drop my pen in comfort. In here I'm not traveling 1,400mph, am I? Everything works like that. Conditioned by its frame of reference. All the electronics in all the instruments in this cockpit obey the exact same laws they would if the plane were standing still. Because in this frame, like me they are not traveling at Mach two. And all the laws of nature behave the same way. This beam of light is going out in all directions at 186,000 miles per second. Being on the concord makes no difference to it's speed going forward, backwards sideways.
1 - The Way We Are
- When any good attitude or concept or system worked well, we hung onto it. We preserved representative democracy, intended for a time when only a few could get to the capital to speak for the many. Modern finance was designed in the 17th century. Literacy as a test of intelligence came in the 15th century. The idea of progress is 19th century. And yet, all of those things are part of our mental furniture today, because when the answer to a question -- a solution to a problem -- suits us, we kind of institutionalize it, so that it won't change even when we do. The business of questioning, itself, has been institutionalized like that, in the kind of place that Jodrell Bank telescope belongs to: a university.
- The oldest answers to the most basic questions about how to operate are common to virtually every culture on the planet, because at the simplest level, every culture needs to keep order -- especially this kind: (James Burke displays a wedding ring.) This is one of those things in life we protect most against being changed when knowledge changes us. We protect it by turning it into a ritual. When we get married, or buried, get christened, or anything else too important to play by ear, the event is turned into a kind of play where everybody gets a role they act out. It's a kind of public agreement to stick to the general rules about whatever it is. The people doing it are effectively saying, "No matter what else may change, we won't rock the boat! We're not maverick. You can trust us." Expressions of approval follow. Most of these ritual ways of answering a social need that we got from the past look like it. They include something from an ancient rite -- in this case, the old symbol of fertility: the ring. And then, it's all done in the presence of a supernatural being: a God. So, the agreement is also made under what was once a real threat of heavenly retribution if you broke your promise later on. Some things, this ritual says, must be permanent.
- A ritual wouldn't be much of a ritual if you didn't feel like you've been put through the ringer, would it?
- If something becomes common enough to turn into a ritual, and then starts to involve really large numbers of people, that's when the ritual becomes something else. It becomes widespread enough to affect the general agreement we all share. So, that's when the responsibility for running it goes out of your hands to be taken over by the institutions set up to run the rituals that matter on a regular basis, so that people can have clear rules and regulations to follow if they decide to get up to that particular ritual. The institutions take the admin out of daily life and run it for you: banking, government, sewage, tax collecting. Or, if you break the rules and regulations, one institution can take you out of daily life. This one: (James Burke displays a trial.) In every community, the law -- whether it's dressed up like this or the village elders telling you what the local custom is -- the law is all those rules I was on about earlier. I suppose what institutions like this do, most of all, is the dirty work. While they're putting them away here in the law court, for instance, that leaves us free to get on with making money, having a career, and avoiding the social responsibilities that these people have to deal with. And after a few centuries of this buck-passing, the institutions get big and powerful, and reach into everybody's lives so much they become hard to alter and virtually impossible to get rid of.
- The name of the game here, and in all the institutions that run your life, is keeping order, because if the institutions didn't do that, it would be the end of civilization as we know it, wouldn't it? So, the institutions are usually old-fashioned; don't like change.
10 - Worlds Without End
- Closing monologue
- As for the permanent values that are supposed to remain unchanged in spite of our changing knowledge — well they change too. Once it was good to burn women. Wrong to claim the Earth went around the sun. Logical to argue about angels on the head of a pin.
- Values change every time the universe changes — and that's every time we redefine a big enough bit of it. Which we do all the time, through the process of discovery (that isn't discovery, just the invention of another version of how things are).
- And yet, in spite of that, we still go on believing that today's version of things is the only right one. Because as you've learned from this series, we can only handle one way of seeing things at a time. We've never had systems that would let us do more than that.
- So we've always had to have conformity with the current view. Disagree with the church, and you were punished as a heretic; with the political system, as a revolutionary; with the scientific establishment, as a charlatan; with the educational system, as a failure. If you didn't fit the mold, you were rejected.
- But, ironically, the latest product of that way of doing things is a new instrument — a new system — that while it could make conformity more rigid, more totalitarian, than ever before in history, could also blow everything wide open. Because with it, we could operate on the basis that values and standards — and ethics and facts and truth — all depend on what your view of the world is — and that there may be as many views of that, as there are people.
- And with this [microchip] capable of keeping a tally on those millions of opinions voiced electronically, we might be able to lift the limitations of conforming to any centralized representational form of government — originally invented, because there was no way for everybody's voice to be heard.
- You might be able to give everybody unhindered, untested access to knowledge. Because the computer would do the day-to-day work — for which we once qualified the select few — in an educational system originally designed for a world where only the few could be taught.
- You might end the regimentation of people, living and working in vast unmanageable cities. Uniting them instead in an electronic community, where the Himalayas and Manhattan were only a split second apart.
- You might — with that and much more — break the mold that has held us back since the beginning. In a future world that we would describe as "balanced anarchy" — and they will describe as an "open society" — tolerant of every view.
- Aware that there is no single privileged way of doing things.
- Above all, able to do away with the greatest tragedy of our era: the centuries old waste of human talent that we couldn't or wouldn't use.
- Utopia? Why? If, as I've said all along, the universe is — at any time — what you say it is ... then say!
Connections 2 (1994)
1 - Revolutions
- ... That's all it takes to get you back to the late 18th century. Three grandfather's lifetimes. That's how close we are to it. And, yet, that world has disappeared so totally, it's like fairyland. Thatched cottages, meadows, happy peasants. A golden age. Garbage, all that. Nasty, brutish, and short - that's what life was all about. And dirty. And boring. And it had been like that for thousands of years! And then, suddenly, the whole complex polluted overpopulated phrenetic nonstop stressful high tech rat race that is the modern world... Life was suddenly no longer as simple as it had been. And the extraordinary thing is, none of that was planned.
Read in another language
This page is available in 1 language