Connections – A History of Science Documentary TV Show by James Burke

I meant to write about this a while ago, when I first came upon the documentary TV series Connections, created, written and presented by science historian James Burke (I LOVE the history of science!).  There are three seasons (kind of… four if you count another show by him called The Day the Universe Changed), most of which you can find on Youtube. The show aired in the late 70s, with the second and third incarnations being in 1994 and 1997. The show “took an interdisciplinary approach to the history of science and invention and demonstrated how various discoveries, scientific achievements, and historical world events were built from one another successively in an interconnected way to bring about particular aspects of modern technology. The series was noted for Burke’s crisp and enthusiastic presentation (and dry humour), historical reenactments, and intricate working models.”

I’ve decided to re-watch the series, and I’ll post after each episode, giving a summary of Burkes ‘connections’ and some of my own thoughts. The first episode, below, is called “The Trigger Effect”, and sort of acts as an intro. I found a summary over at some fans website:

Both the beginning and the end of the story are here. The end is our present dependence on complex technological networks illustrated by the NYC power blackouts. Life came almost to a standstill: support systems taken for granted failed. How did we become so helpless? Technology originated with the plow and agriculture. Each invention demands its own follow-up: once started, it is hard to stop. This segment ends in Kuwait, where society has leapt from ancient Egypt to the technology of today in 30 years.

Burke gives a great summary of the show himself after about a minute and twenty seconds: “It’s about the things that surround you in the modern world and just because they’re there shape the way you think and behave, and why they exist in the form they do. And who, or what, was responsible for them existing at all. The search for those clues will take us all over the world and 12,000 years into the past.”

He also introduces some of the strange connections the show goes on to cover: “Why a 16th century doctor at the court of Queen Elizabeth did something that made it possible or you to watch this screen now. Or the fact that because 18th century merchants were worried about ships’ bottoms, you have nylon to wear. Or why a group of french monks and their involvement with sheep rearing, helped to give the modern world the computer. Or what medieval Europeans did with their fire in winter that led to motorcar manufacture.”

I don’t have any insights myself on this episode. It mainly serves as an intro and to get you hooked into the series. I guess in a way an anarcho-primitivists (Leo Tolstoy, Henry David Thoreau) would take glee in the way that Burke sets up the suspense of the New York City blackout, and all the horrible things that will happen when a relay detected an increase in power above a threshold which caused a chain reaction, which shifted power successively and overloaded the lines until power was drained out of New York to make up for the loss.

His summary of what led to farming, and agriculture, and how that started off the whole set of events that leads to our modern world today, is quite interesting:
– plow and farming was invented in Northern India, Syria, Egypt and Central America
– 12,000 years ago, it stopped raining, and became hot
– high grasslands dried out, which made it so that hunting and gathering didn’t provide enough to sustain the populations
– so they headed to water, into great ‘river valleys’
– in Egypt it was the Nile
– Nile rises in two places, from one it brought rotting vegetation, from the other potash
– this meant that it brought compost and fertilizer (respectively), which caused the land to bloom
– faced with starvation during off-seasons, the river dwellers tried planting grain by hand, which was not enough
– then the plow was invented, which lead to: knowing how much harvest you’ll get next year, which means you’ll be in the same place next year, which means you can plan for the future. Then when you can produce surplus food, which creates a population explosion. You domesticate animals for work and food because they’re not there to hunt anymore.
– Then you get into grain and storing grain (bread, the staple diet on which everyone lives), which you need pots and ovens for, and then there’s the ownership of grain. Ownership then leads to writing (on pots).
– Then you get irrigation: flooding destroyed landmarks, and then retreated leaving the soil to dry out, this lead to: measuring landscapes (geometry and math), and building cannals (stone work).
– With math and stone work, you get what you need to build the Pyramids
– Since you now have a society, you’ll need weapons to protect them
– And scribes, taxes, authority, and kings…
– A king’s ability to ‘magically’ know how high the water would rise to prove his godliness
– the information for which was provided by astronomer’s who noticed that the star Sirius rises just before dawn on one particular day, 17th July every year, and that day is one day before the flood begins, and that the flood came once every 365 days.
– which leads to the calendar, which leads to organizing people, and order things according to known times (dates)
– As to how high the water would rise, that came from measuring the water each year, and predicting the next.

He then talks about how the Egyptians achieved everything they did in about 4000 years, whereas Kuwait today, which also started off as nomadic in the desert, sprang up into the technology of today (thanks to oil) in 4000 days.

Watch it here:


About dontdontoperate

28 year old originally from Barrie, Ontario, Canada. H.B.Sc. from UofT with a major in chemistry and a double minor in philosophy and math. M.Sc. from UofT in physiology and neuroscience. Finished my Ph.D. in biomedical engineering at McMaster in the fall of 2013.
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