“If I have seen further, it is by standing on ye shoulders of giants.” So wrote Sir Isaac Newton to Robert Hooke on February 5th 1675, a statement which did not undermine his own genius in any way, already Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge and a Fellow of the Royal Society though aged only thirty three, but instead demonstrated the awareness of the world around him which had brought him to those achievements.
Now available on DVD in the UK for the first time the documentary series Connections was an expansion of this idea, written and presented by James Burke, perhaps best known to the public of the time as anchorman of the BBC’s coverage of the Apollo 11 mission to the Moon in June 1969. Formerly a reporter on Tomorrow’s World, a show which looked to a future which very rarely arrived in the predicted shape, as a science historical Connections has not dated so badly and the questions it raises and Burke’s warnings for the future remain as relevant as when the show was first broadcast in late 1978.
Subtitled “an alternative view of change,” Burke’s presentation differed from the misleading assumptions of traditional classroom teaching which prefers a simplistic linear narrative without context, instead emphasising that no event happens in isolation nor are the triggers clear except in hindsight, many of the most significant advances which have changed society serendipitous than planned.
Told through the people who made the connections it is easy to become absorbed in the stories where a more abstract, academic approach might be less accessible, and with many of the climactic inventions and incidents still in use or occurring within living memory – the bombing of Hiroshima in August 1945 or the blackout of northeast United States in November 1965 – there is an unbroken, if unplanned, path from antiquity to the present day.
From the limelight to the arc lamp which forms the opening titles, Burke enjoys the performance and employs a variety of presenting styles ensuring the lectures never become dull. Lacking the advanced graphics of modern shows such as Professor Brian Cox’s Wonders of the Solar System and their ilk he must hold attention and convey information primarily through language as a university lecturer of the time would have done.
Articulating the ideas and their practical applications clearly and without fuss, often assisted through re-enactments and working models, sometimes with the actual artefacts themselves, Burke leads the viewer through seemingly random accretions of modest tools then arrives at an illuminating revelation as the pieces fall into place to create first the Guttenberg printing press, then the Jacquard loom, then finally the principles of modern computing.
Burke speaks with authority on every subject, steam engines, electromagnetism, military tactics and the problems inherent in feeding an army on the move, even how fashion both reflects and drives change, along the way explaining the origins of phrases in common parlance such as copper-bottomed and Sheffield steel, even words such as bastion and malaria, but always his eye is on the impact of each discovery, as with the “Nuremberg egg,” a spring driven clock of the late sixteenth century.
“Imagine being given something like that when the world you live in is full of bears and wolves and dark forests and muddy tracks and thatched roofs. It must have been like one of us getting a personal interstellar spacecraft to play with and park round behind the house.” With each invention explained clearly and incrementally the process is made easy: some of those involved, though by no means all, may have been geniuses, but they were not in any way superhuman.
With the opening episode The Trigger Effect serving as an introduction and the concluding Yesterday, Tomorrow and You a summation and reflection on the implications and possible responses to the issues raised, the eight episodes between link together, the different threads forming a web not only with regards to each development but to each other as seamlessly as the ideas discussed.
Science and inventions being global endeavours the stories are not parochial and involve trips across the Middle and the Far East, the Americas, all across Europe and even to the mountains of Scotland, but if there is one common thread it is the accumulation of wealth which drives so much of what is considered, and certainly with its love of novelty it is America which has accelerated the pace of change, led by the man who “invented inventing,” Thomas Edison.
In its subjects, style and presentation, Connections is in many ways a precursor to Carl Sagan’s Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, originally broadcast on PBS just under a year later, with a single presenter travelling the globe offering information, analysis, insight, anecdotes and informed opinion, with key moments recreated by costumed extras and classical selections providing much of the soundtrack.
Where science illuminates, there are also repeated operators of suppression, Galileo under house arrest for the heresy of suggesting the Earth was not the centre of all creation, the church’s refusal to allow experiments into air pressure as dogma insisted a vacuum could not exist, yet in order to circumvent these obstructions new connections were formed which ultimately led forwards to progress.
In fact, for this reason religion is included in Burke’s list of drivers of invention alongside war, the environment, accidents and simple determination, the process facilitated by communication which allows pooling of knowledge and resources, accelerating the rate of change, but as a consequence science has developed its own language as it has become more specialised, which is why outreach programmes are now an important part of the endeavour.
The repeated warnings of history, the boom of plastic credit cards in the seventies leading to speculations on the cashless society now almost realised four decades later, Burke considers our changing relationship with technology since the post-war boom. “America is a democracy of common possession, and the rest of the industrial world is rapidly going that way, too, but there’s a price: the way our lives have become an extension of the production line.”
In a trend which has only accelerated in the dawn of the information age, Burke is aware of the conundrum that “communications technology has made it possible for us to see very much more, but we still only have the same amount of time to see it in,” his concerns seeming even more relevant in an age of streaming content available worldwide around the clock.
“Television tells us every day 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 we are aware today of how fast the world around us is changing, it’s because television acts as a relentless reminder of that fact.” Instead, Connections is a rare and welcome occasion when television pauses to do the opposite.