Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Connections

I recently finished watching James Burke's excellent 1978 documentary series Connections. The entire series (10 episodes, an hour each) is available from Netflix, although annoyingly you only get two episodes per DVD. The first episode, "The Trigger Effect," is also available on Google Video

The series is dedicated to exploring the history of science and technology. Burke chooses one invention to focus on in each episode, then delves back in time to explain the numerous advancements that had to occur before we could get to the telephone, the jet engine, the atomic bomb, and other world-changing creations. I was a little worried about watching a technology-centric series from 30 years ago, especially when we got to the episode about computers (picture a room full of servers the size of refrigerators...), but was pleased to discover that it has aged very well. The bulk of each episode is devoted to historical events, which don't feel at all dated (unlike Burke's wardrobe!). 

After spending a few idle evenings watching this series, I learned that: alarm clocks were invented by monks who needed a reliable way to say their prayers on time, computer punch cards arose from the technology used to create jacquard fabrics on a loom, the electric light bulb was preceded by "limelight" -- literally heating a piece of limestone until it became incandescent, air conditioning was originally intended to cure malaria, and you can do a hell of a lot with various coal byproducts. I especially enjoyed the way Burke pointed out all of the failures and accidents in the history of each technological advancement, telling us about the people who tried to build a better steam engine but sucked at it (showing that the idea was around before the actual machines were perfected -- who should get the credit, then?), or the person who invented artificial dyes while trying to make a synthetic form of quinine. I think these sorts of discoveries make a great case for continuing to fund basic science research -- you never know how someone's failed experiment or accidental breakthrough might become important. A sense of Burke's style of storytelling can be found at his Knowledge Web project -- see the "Mystery Tours" for some examples of the connections between inventions and events.

Definitely an enjoyable show! Check it out if you're in the market for some good educational programming.

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