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.


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