Monday, October 11, 2004

Connections and Prognostications

This isn't intended to be one of my usual long-winded essays, at least not in the short term. I may well expand on it later, but I don't want to take the time now, at work. Also, I'm very tired.

The reason I'm dragging today is that I found out last night that the Science Channel was running certain old science programs over the Columbus Day weekend. Along with Perfect Tommy's hero Mr. Wizard, whom we missed entirely, Bronowski's The Ascent of Man and less celebrated series, there were a few shows scheduled that were (and are) especially dear to my heart.

Yes, he really is funny.

One, The Day the Universe Changed, is a ten-episode 1985 series by James Burke, a former BBC science correspondent who covered the Apollo launches, the footage for which was later scrapped by the BBC in one of their ill-conceived library purges. (This is also why many early Doctor Who episodes remain unavailable.) Beginning in the late 1970s, Burke has made a career of examining the complex web of connections between seemingly unrelated events in the history of science and technology. Aside from The Day the Universe Changed, he's written and presented three major series on the subject, called Connections (1978), Connections2 and Connections3, the last of which he made sometime in the past five years or so. He's written numerous books, and even had his own Connections computer game.

Virtually all of this activity has to do with his concept of the Knowledge Web, through which he seeks to document connections throughout history. For example, one episode of TDTUC shows how the development of the theory of evolution took us from a static view of a God-centered universe to a long-standing battle between competing ideologies of social Darwinism, originally with cutthroat capitalists on one side and Lenin's adherents on the other. Another shows how Ben Franklin, that highly individual inventor / philosopher / politician, indirectly caused the dehumanization of modern medicine. Connections episodes will start on a sugar plantation, in French wine country or with the invention of the plow or a billiards demonstration, and end up, through a series of unlikely but valid links, on Ellis Island, in thecockpit of the Enola Gay, or someplace equally surprising.

It's fascinating stuff, especially in the older series, before the pace of connections shown becomes too dizzyingly fast to follow. As he takes us from the past to the present (whenever the present is at the time) and ponders implications for the future, he seldom dates himself with inaccurate predictions. (It is kind of fun, though, to laugh at his dated clothing and the clunky computers shown in the older shows.)

Beyond these factors, the shows have more deliberate entertainment value. Burke travels around the world, observing and often interacting with the stuff he's talking about, whether he's picking up a copy of the Declaration of Independence in Independence Hall, wading in a Victorian sewer, or riding a bus to the top of Mt. Aetna to see what the place tells us about the age of the Earth. The brilliant, eccentric, scandalous and/or downright odd innovators of Burke's anecdotes are shown in reenactments, having ether parties, tramping around the countryside, taking a rock to bed, and generally acting brilliant, eccentric, scandalous and odd.
Unfortunately, he's not quite as funny and accessible in print as he is on screen, but the CD-ROM is a hoot.

Anyway, there were two of these episodes on last night at 2 AM and 3 AM, Arizona time. I'd never seen them before, much less taped them. Given that I didn't have a full two hours available on the DVD-R (short reason: I messed up), I had to stay up until 4 AM to watch them--didn't I? This show is very rarely aired any more, and fearfully expensive to buy the last time I checked. The good news is that Connections2 and Connections3 do still turn up on tv occasionally. For a while they were on the Science Channel most weekends, but those days are gone for now.

No, really!

The other series I wanted to watch last night the The 21st Century, a 1967 future prediction series hosted by one of my heroes, Walter Cronkite. I didn't get to see more than a couple of minutes each of the shows on space medicine and going to Mars, due to having to catch 40 individual pages of a PDF text chapter as they fell out of my $50 printer at a rate of less than one per minute. However, I managed to record the second half of Uncle Walter's episode called "At Home  - 2001." As you might expect, the show was terribly wrong in many of its predictions (way behindin some respects; ahead, silly or impractical in others). The show inadvertently said a lot more about the culture from which it came than it did about the real world of 2001.  It was immensely fun to watch. I wish I could have recorded the whole thing - but then, I'd never have gotten two episodes of James Burke's show on that DVD.

Gee, this turned out to be one of my long-winded entries after all.


Palmer's James Burke Fan Companion

Welcome to the Retro Future

James Burke's KnowledgeWeb Project


alphawoman1 said...

I loved Mr Wizard!  My Mom ruled our tv viewing with an iron hand.  You remember what our parents thought about tv...rotting our brains!  So I loved being able to watch him and his terrific show.  I wish I had known this was on! I am fascinated by all this I could have been a scientist or something if only....I am very analytical and methodical.

ryanagi said...

Ooo I am feeling VERY deprived. I've never seen ANY of the shows you mentioned here. And they sound right up my alley too. I was/am a big fan of Nova, In Search Of, and other pseudo-scientific fare. LOL -B

justcherie said...

Great entry!  My husband is a huge James Burke fan, so I think I have watched every program he has ever been in, and we own most of them on vhs!  He also love Bronowski, and one of the first presents I ever bought him when we first started dating was the companion book to The Assent of Man!  Thanks for the reminder!