Sep 23 2010 10:01am

James Burke: An Appreciation

When I wrote my recent post about tattoos, I was reminded of just how much I admire James Burke. Were I to compile a list of my top ten favorite geeks of all time, not only would Burke make the list, he’d also know how he’s connected to the other nine.

Television host, author and historian, Burke developed a wonderful and highly entertaining way of seeing the world as a connected whole, rather than the sum of random events. In his shows Connections, Connections2, and The Day the Universe Changed, he illustrated vast webs of related events, showing that history is not fully understood in a purely linear fashion, and that over-focusing on particular aspects of history or science blurs the big picture. As he writes, “People tend to become experts in highly specialized fields, learning more and more about less and less. Unfortunately, so much specialization falsely creates the illusion that knowledge and discovery exist in a vacuum, in context only with their own disciplines, when in reality they are born from interdisciplinary connections. Without an ability to see these connections, history and science won’t be learnable in a truly meaningful way and innovation will be stifled.”

Burke was born in Derry, three years earlier than onetime Derry resident and Nobel Laureate Seamus Haney. The Nobel Prize is, of course, named for its founder, Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite, which stabilized nitroglycerine in diatomaceous earth. The earth he used came from Hanover, Germany where a few hundred years earlier, George I, of Lower Saxony, ruled (later becoming king of Great Britain). George and his brother served in Battle of Vienna in 1683 against the Ottoman Empire. There, legend has it, the croissant was invented, formed in a crescent shape to mock the Turkish flag. Croissants are often served with coffee, and one of the first coffeehouses in Europe opened in Vienna, not long after the battle. In 1997, Starbucks opened a coffeehouse at Crescent Link Retail Park in Derry.

Granted, what I just wrote is a bit silly, and more about incidental connections than any real causal chain. Burke’s connections are much stronger in terms of causality, though sometimes no less silly. Burke has a natural way of imparting levity into his presentations, making the enormity of his knowledge accessible to a general audience. His presentations are highly visual, imparting a “hands-on” approach to his subjects. His outlook is honest but positive, definitely in favor of the human drive to invent and investigate, even when he acknowledges error. After all, many seemingly failed innovations led to successes later. It can be said that in his way of seeing things, there aren’t really any failures, just connections that haven’t been fully realized.

Burke was one of the chief BBC presenters during the Apollo 11 mission. I’ve never seen the broadcasts, but as I understand it David Bowie performed “Space Oddity” (and it should be noted that his son later directed a movie called Moon) and famed actors recited poetry about the moon. I don’t know what poems they read, but I’d like to think there were a few Chinese poets represented, especially Tu Fu and Li Bai, who were famous for writing about the moon. Also, the Chinese invented the first rockets.

Try as I might, I can’t write about anything Burkian in a straight line. Attempting to think like James Burke is challenging and, for me, at least, addictive. I used to play a game inspired by Burke with my parents and friends. I’d ask them to write down five seemingly unrelated things and I’d have to come up with a reasonable way they were all connected.

I won’t play the game in full now, but let me give you a quick f’rinstance. Suppose the items are chess, smurfs, cassowaries, Frank Sinatra and hubcaps. It doesn’t count to say that chess is a game and smurfs are toys and Sinatra was an entertainer who drove a car and toured Australia. That’s pretty cheap, Burke-wise. But if you say that the ancient Persians, who at times invaded Sicily, invented chess (or imported it from India) and Sinatra was Sicilian, you’re off to a better start. Fellow American of Sicilian decent Joseph Barbera, of Hanna-Barbera, was co-owner of the animation studio that made the Smurfs popular in the U.S. Of course, even these disparate items can be connected a variety of ways and I’ve barely scratched the surface.

But what makes James Burke impressive is not an ability to string trivia together. He’s developed a multi-tier approach to understanding human development that not only provides a broad view of the past but (as all good historians should do) also sheds light on possible futures. Better still, he trains his viewers and readers to see the world this way as well.

Oh, and ten points to anyone who can work in the cassowaries and hubcaps.


Jason Henninger lives in Los Angeles but likes to study history anyhow.

Matthew B
1. MatthewB
Burke is a cool guy, but I think he was actually quoting Konrad Lorenz about specialization.
"Every man gets a narrower and narrower field of knowledge in which he must be an expert in order to compete with other people. The specialist knows more and more about less and less and finally knows everything about nothing."

I've heard that in several variations and my favorite includes the opposite as well:
"A specialist knows almost everything about almost nothing. A generalist knows almost nothing about almost everything."
Skip Ives
2. Skip
I loved "Connections", and his descriptions of how change affects us seems truer today than when they were originally broadcast. The way that some of the examples he used in the show only highlight his point, rather than making them irrelevant

I have always found Mr. Burke interesting and thought provoking. Check him out if you are new to him.
Mike Conley
3. NomadUK
The first episode of Connections should be mandatory viewing for every person living in an industrialised society. I don't think I've ever seen anything that so powerfully made clear the fragility of our technological civilisation, or the utter hopelessness that would confront the vast majority of us should it collapse.
Mitchell Downs
4. Beamish
I recently finished re-watching all three Connections series (yes there was a Connections3) and "The Day the Universe Changed" series. While they are as interesting as ever, it is just as informative to see how they show their age - particularly when Burke brings the viewer to an endgame of the personal computer or GPS.

I was completely captivated by these programs when I first saw them in the early days of The Learning Channel and The Discovery Channel (as they were filling out their programming.) They are still well worth viewing repeatedly.
Gregory Manchess
5. GregManchess
This is a fantastic series. What's exciting about it is not only all the disparate connections, but how inspiring it is to think critically about things we encounter everyday.

Take nothing for granted. Research. Study. Delve.

LOVE IT. Should be required for all grade school kids. Get them started on this early.

Thanks for calling attention to it, Jason!
David Levinson
6. DemetriosX
I loved these series and I have the book for the first one. I remember for one of the series, PBS showed brief "Making of..." for each episode to fill out the hour. Burke and someone else would chat briefly about how they filmed various things. I distinctly remember him explaining that they did Copernicus (or was it Tycho Brahe?) eating roasted mouse on toast with a marzipan mouse. Wonderful, wonderful series.
Cait Glasson
7. CaitieCat
I love Mr. Burke's work. Oddly, I happen to be reading one of his books right now, The Axemaker's Gift, in which his thesis is that each time an inventor has given us a new world-changing invention (such as the axe), that invention always brings with it the seeds of the next crisis that technology will need to solve. The axe meant cutting down the trees meant the need for agriculture meant irrigation meant engineering et c., et c..

In fact, I'm such a squeeing fangirl that I actually asked him for his autograph once. I was in my last year at McMaster University in Hamilton, and cut a fourth-year linguistics seminar to go hear Mr. Burke speak - only to discover that the prof of that fourth-year seminar had cancelled the class, so he could attend, and was sitting two seats over from me! Cue the weak grin.

I didn't have a notebook with me, so I handed him my copy of a Jack Whyte book from his Arthurian series (can't remember which one, and it's all the way over there --> on my shelf) and asked him to sign the title page. He was bemused and amused, and did as I requested. I gather he doesn't get many autograph requests. :)

Another of his books, The Pinball Effect, has a system of hyperlinks in the dead-tree edition: the margins have numbers, which refer to other places in the book. It's possible to wiki-surf the book, which is a lot of fun: open it randomly, and follow the first link you come to repeatedly.
Joe Romano
8. Drunes
James Burke and his series, Connections, changed the way I look at the world. I can think of no other television program that impacted the way I think quite as much as his did. To this day, many of the people I work with look at me cross-eyed when I try to identify the "connections" that make sense of what we do everyday. Where I see order in the universe, they see coincidence. Thanks go to Mr. Burke for that.
Aly Fell
9. AlyFell
I grew up watching Connections. It was an inspiring series for almost any kid in the 70's. Alongside Carl Sagan and Patrick Moore these people were just wonderful to listen to and watch, their enthusiasm and inquiry, just great!

Caitie - Good to know he's still out there! :)
mathias-emanuel hartmann
11. semphora
well, this certainly sounds interesting. which of his books would you recommend as a good starting point?
Joseph Blaidd
12. SteelBlaidd
The Day the Universe Changed has always been one of my favorite comfort watches. It's a shame tehre dosent apear to be a DVD version.

The thing I apreciated most about his many presintations was his continual reminders that just because other cultures
(whether present or past) see things differently this dosen't mean they are stupid just that they have different priorities.
Cait Glasson
13. CaitieCat
@11 semphora: I don't know if I'd say any of his books are better than the others; I've personally really enjoyed The Axemaker's Gift and The Pinball Effect the most, but it's pretty subjective.

Connections and The Day The Universe Changed were both made into series that were quite enjoyable (but as noted, not as available as we'd like on DVD), so I'm sure the books were even better (as they'd cover more ground).

Basically, if you're interested in the history of technology/science, there aren't any bad ones to start with. :)
Cait Glasson
14. CaitieCat
Sorry for the double post - stupid thing told me the first one hadn't gone through. :/
Joe Romano
16. Drunes
There's a connection between the medieval village in Germany that first organized soapmakers and double-posting on But... only James Burke could explain it in a way that makes any sense.

And this is most definitely a compliment!
Flat Earther
17. Flat Earther
I heard James Burke speak at the University Of California, Irvine, about ten years ago.

I'm a professional writer with a Masters in English, yet his vocabulary blew me away! Easily the most erudite person I've ever heard.

Now if someone could just tell me what he said!
Flat Earther
18. Tony Hughes
I’m not an avid fan of modern communication; I feel twitter, YouTube, and the content we consume today dumbs down society. It was so refreshing to come across James Burke’s BBC Connections documentaries, strangely today on YouTube. I would like to thank you James for your work on educating the youth of the time. I wish there were more people like you on TV instead of all this consumerism, reality TV (which isn’t reality at all) and cheap instant gratification in the means of entertainment.

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