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James Burke: Connections

Friday, August 6, 2010 , Posted by ebizar at 7:43 AM

Connections explores an “Alternative View of Change” (the subtitle of the series) that rejects the conventional linear and teleological view of historical progress. Burke contends that one cannot consider the development of any particular piece of the modern world in isolation.

Rather, the entire gestalt of the modern world is the result of a web of interconnected events, each one consisting of a person or group acting for reasons of their own (e.g., profit, curiosity, religious) motivations with no concept of the final, modern result of what either their or their contemporaries’ actions finally led to. The interplay of the results of these isolated events is what drives history and innovation, and is also the main focus of the series and its sequels.

To demonstrate this view, Burke begins each episode with a particular event or innovation in the past (usually Ancient or Medieval times) and traces the path from that event through a series of seemingly unrelated connections to a fundamental and essential aspect of the modern world. For example, the “The Long Chain” episode traces the invention of plastics from the development of the fluyt, a type of Dutch cargo ship.

Watch the full documentary now (30 episodes, each 45 minutes long)

Connections (1978)

1. The Trigger Effect details the world’s present dependence on complex technological networks through a detailed narrative of New York City and the power blackout of 1965.

2. Death in the Morning examines the standardization of precious metal with the touchstone in the ancient world.

3. Distant Voices suggests that telecommunications exist because Normans had stirrups for horse riding which in turn led them to further advancements in warfare.

4. Faith in Numbers examines the transition from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance from the perspective of how commercialism, climate change and the Black Death influenced cultural development.

5. The Wheel of Fortune traces astrological knowledge in ancient Greek manuscripts from Baghdad’s founder, Caliph Al-Mansur, via the Muslim monastery/medical school at Gundeshapur, to the medieval Church’s need for alarm clocks (the water horologium and the verge and foliot clock).

6. Thunder in the Skies implicates the Little Ice Age (ca. 1250-1300 AD) in the invention of the chimney, as well as knitting, buttons, wainscoting, wall tapestries, wall plastering, glass windows, and the practice of privacy for sleeping and sex.

7. The Long Chain traces the invention of the Fluyt freighter in Holland in the 1500s. Voyages were insured by Edward Lloyd (Lloyd’s of London) if the ships hulls were covered in pitch and tar which came from the colonies until the American Revolution in 1776.

8. Eat, Drink and Be Merry begins with plastic, the plastic credit card and the concept of credit then leaps back in time to to the Dukes of Burgundy, which was the first state to use credit.

9. Countdown connects the invention of the movie projector to improvements in castle fortifications caused by the invention and use of the cannon.

10. Yesterday, Tomorrow and You. A bit of a recap: change causes more change. Start with the plow, you get craftsmen, civilization, irrigation, pottery and writing, mathematics, a calendar to predict floods, empires, and a modern world where change happens so rapidly you can’t keep up.

Connections² (1994)

1. Revolutions & Sentimental Journeys – What do all these things have in common – 3 grandfathers’ lifetimes, 2 revolutions, 1750 Cornwall tin mines, water in mines, pumps, steam engines, Watt’s copier, carbon paper, matches, phosphorus fertilizer, trains and gene pool mixing, traveling salesmen, 24 hour production, educated women, telephone, high-rise buildings, Damascus’s swords, steel, diamond, carborundum, graphite, x-ray crystalography, DNA and gene therapy?

2. Getting it Together & Whodunit? – James Burke explains the relationship between hot air balloons and laughing gas, and goes on to surgery, hydraulic water gardens, hydraulic rams, tunneling through the Alps, the Orient Express, nitroglycerin, heart attacks & headaches, aspirin, carbolic acid, disinfectant, Mabach-Gottlieb Daimler-Mercedes, carburetors, and helicopters.

3. Something for Nothing & Echoes of the Past – How do shuttle landings start with the vacuum which was forbidden by the Church? Burke takes us on an adventure with barometers, weather forecasting, muddy and blacktop roads, rain runoff, sewage, a cholera epidemic, hygiene, plumbing, ceramics, vacuum pumps, compressed air drills, tunnels in the Alps, train air brakes, Tesla hydroelectric power, electric motor, Galvani’s muscle-electricity connection, Volta’s battery, and gyroscopes.

4. Photo Finish & Separate Ways – Another series of discoveries examined by Burke which include Eastman’s film Kodak Brownie, the disappearing elephant scare of 1867, billiard balls, celluloid as a substitute for ivory, false teeth that explode, gun cotton, double shot sound of a bullet, Mach’s shock wave, aerodynamics, nuclear bombs, Einstein’s relativity, Einstein’s selenium, movie talkies, the vacuum tube amplifier, radio, railroad’s use of wood, coal tar, gas lights, creosote, rubber, the Zeplin, the automobile and finally how Adeline vulcanizes tires.

5. High Times & Deja Vu – The connection between polyethylene and Big Ben is a few degrees of separation, so let’s recount them: polyethylene, radar, soap, artificial dyes, color perception, tapestries, far East goods, fake lacquer furniture, search for shorter route to Japan, Hudson in Greenland, the discovery of plentiful whales, printing the Bible, Mercator map, Martin Luther’s protest, star tables, a flattened earth, George Graham’s clock which of course leads to Big Ben.

6. New Harmony & Hot Pickle – A dream of utopia is followed from microchips to Singapore, from the transistor to its most important element, germanium, to Ming Vases and cobalt fakes, which contribute to the blue in blue tiles used in special Islamic places, and Mosaics in Byzantium, the donation of Constantine, Portuguese navigation by stars, the “discovery” of Brazil, Holland’s tolerance, diamond merchants, optics, microscopes, beasts of science, Frankenstein’s monster, and finally New Harmony.

7. The Big Spin & Bright Ideas – is a California lottery which is basically gambling. From here Burke takes us through Alexander Flemming’s chance discovery of penicillin, to Vierschoft’s observation that contaminated water is related to health, to Schliemann’s search for City of Troy, the theft of discovered treasure, and to Vierschoft’s criminology.

8. Making Waves & Routes – a permanent wave in ladies’ hair is aided by curlers, and this leads us to explore borax, taking us to Switzerland, Johan Sutter’s scam, and the saw mill, and that means the discovery of gold leading to the 1848 California gold rush.

9. One Word & Sign Here – The one word that changed everything was “filioque” but we must make a trip to Constantinople, visit the Renaissance, meet Aldus Manutius of Venice, explore abbreviations, learn about Italic print, which resulted in an overload of books, requiring the development of a cataloging system.

10. Better Than the Real Thing & Flexible Response – starts in the 1890′s with bicycles and bloomers and then takes a look at boots, zippers, sewing machines, and infinitesimal difference. Speaking of small, we look at microscopic germs, Polarized light, sugar, coal, iron, micro-bubbles, the spectroscope, night vision, beri-beri resulting from polished rice, chickens, war rationing, and finally, we arrive at vitamins in a pill.

Connections³ (1997)

1. Feedback – Electronic agents on the Internet and wartime guns use feedback techniques discovered in the first place by Claude Bernard, whose vivisection experiments kick off animal rights movements called humane societies that really start out as lifeboat crews rescuing people from all the shipwrecks happening because of all the extra ships out there…

2. What’s in a Name? – Remember the cornflakes from last episode? Thanks to the fact that corncobs make adhesives to bond Carborundum, otherwise known as silicon carbide, to grinding wheels used to grind light-bulbs.

3. Drop the Apple – At the Smithsonian, we learn of electric crystals that help Pierre and Marie Curie discover what they call radium, and then Langevin uses the piezo-electric crystal to develop sonar that helps save liberty ships (from German U-boats) put together with welding techniques using acetylene made with carbon arcs…

4. An Invisible Object – Black holes in space, seen by the Hubble Telescope, brought into space with hydrazine fuel, which was a by-product of fungicidal French vines, fueled by quarantine conventions and money orders, American Express and Buffalo Bill, Vaudeville and French battles, Joan of Arc and the Inquisition…

5. Life is No Picnic – Instant coffee gets off the ground in World War II and Jeeps lead to nylons and stocking machines smashed by Luddites, who were defended by Byron, who meets John Galt in Turkey, avoiding the same blockade that inspires the “Star-Spangled Banner,”…

6. Elementary Stuff – Alfred Russel Wallace, who studied beetles, Oliver Joseph Lodge and telegraphy, a radio designed by Reginald Fessenden, which was used by banana growers, studied by Augustin Pyramus de Candolle, who got the Swiss to use stamps on postcards with cartoons of Gothic Houses of parliament, which in turn had been inspired by Johann Gottfried Herder’s Romantic movement…

7. A Special Place – Professor Sir Alec Jeffries of Leicester University in England develops DNA profiling and schlieren photography used by Theodore von Karman to study aerodynamics and Anthony Fokker’s airborne machine guns and the Red Baron and geography and Romantic ideas that start in Italy…

8. Fire from the Sky – Thanks to Continental Drift and Alfred Wegener’s passion for mirages, magic images from the sister of King Arthur, whose chivalry supposedly triggers the medieval courtly love answer to adultery, which were in turn inspired by the free love ideas of the mystical Cathars, who lived next to the mystical cabalists…

9. Hit the Water – Thanks to napalm, made with palm oil, also used for margarine, stiffened with a process using kieselguhr that comes from plankton living in currents studied by Ballot bbefore observing the Doppler Effect that caused Fizeau to measure the speed of light speed. Fizeau’s father-in-law’s friend, Prosper Mérimée, who wrote “Carmen”…

10. In Touch – Starting from an attempt for cheaper fusion power using superconductivity, which was discovered by Onnes, with liquid gas provided by Cailletet, who carried out experiments on a tower built by Eiffel, who also built the Statue of Liberty with its famous poem by the Jewish activist Emma Lazarus…

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