Tenuous Connections

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Recently playing to local audiences, courtesy of PBS, was another "science" series, Connections. Coproduced by the BBC and Time-Life Films and starring the writer of the series, James Burke, Connections was apparently designed in imitation of Jacob Bronowski's Ascent of Man series of some years ago. Unlike Bronowski, however—who usually remained close to the historical facts, even though his emphasis could sometimes be questioned—Burke seemed to take delight in making statements totally without basis in the literature of the history of science.

In the first of 10 episodes, titled "The Trigger Effect," viewers were introduced to Burke's paranoid feelings about the "technology trap, in which we're supposedly caught. The episode opens with the events leading up to New York City's 1965 power blackout, triggered by a faulty relay at Niagara Falls that, by overloading connected generators, left several states without power. There was, of course, much looting during the blackout, but even the scenes depicted in this show belie Burke's paranoia, since they imply that the blackout brought most New Yorkers closer together.

One of Burke's themes is that we have become so dependent upon technological gadgets that we cannot function without them. Yet most people did find ways to "function" during the blackout. A doctor delivering a baby either used a flashlight or else, as Burke himself remarks, knew that it is a procedure that depends more on feel than on sight. People stuck in subways threw parties with whatever they happened to have with them and generally had a good time talking with and meeting others on the subway for perhaps the first time.

Burke, however, uses the New York blackout to raise the chilly specter of interconnected generators all across the United States becoming overloaded. And so we are led to envision a national economic crisis and to question our ability to function in a nontechnological world. The rest of the first episode presents the themes that infuse the series: first, nobody knows how to be energy self-sufficient, so it seems that we have to start anew on the farm, with the plow drawn by oxen; second, people are deterministically driven to create new gadgets merely by having previous gadgets around.

But just how far-fetched these inter-gadget connections are becomes clear in the second episode, "Death in the Morning," intended to enlighten us about the origins of the atomic bomb. Historians of science who checked in on the show would have been amazed to learn from Burke that the atomic bomb can be traced back 2,200 years, to the invention of money and the use of touchstones to assay gold. And so it continues, through a hodgepodge of historical events—book burning in Alexandria, Ptolemic astronomy, triangular sails and stern rudders, Sir Francis Drake's "swashbuckling" and "indeed criminal" behavior, and the invention of compasses, radar, the telegraph, and telephone. Interwoven with his comments on these historical events, Burke manages gratuitous assaults on the profit motive. Owners of gunpowder warehouses, for example, when their stores were blown up by lightening, wanted to know more about it, since "not only was this costing lives, but it was costing money" (Burke's emphasis).

Almost needless to say, the "connections" or "origins" Burke points to make up an hour's worth of nonsense. But more than this, his show on the atomic bomb is guilty of a glaring omission. Einstein and his famous equation, E = mc2, is never mentioned, let alone given a central position in Burke's self-styled "alternative view of change." But if the origin of something is that without which it would not exist, then Einstein and his idea, that "mass" can be converted into "energy," must be considered the origin of the atomic bomb.

Equally missing in Burke's "detective story" is the Manhattan project and the scientists who worked on it (Edward Teller, Enrico Fermi, etc.), not to mention the connections that really existed between Einstein's theories and those who influenced him—mathematicians, physicists, and philosophers of science. The most that can be said for the "connections" Burke does point to is that they had something to do with delivering the bombs dropped by plane on Japan—although it is not clear from what Burke says that this is why he bothered to focus on those connections.

What was painfully obvious throughout the series is that Burke is not the least bit interested in ideas and the history of ideas; art, philosophy, and politics, he says, are "the products of human emotion," while scientists and primarily technologists are "the true movers of change." And even more than focusing on technology, Burke is after negative human feelings about "future shock." (Typical Burkisms: The world is "complex" and "interdependent" and therefore "frightening"; and "Your house is full of secrets from the past that rule your life.") But, contrary to his assertion that "every one of man's inventions acts like a trigger to cause change," it is individuals and their ideas, not the technological gadgets "with which we surround ourselves," that lead to further innovation.

As becomes clear in the last episode, however, Burke's real point is not so much to explain the technology we now have as to discourage further innovation. These are "society's [sic] options" for the future, he says: (1) scrap technology and go rural; (2) allow selective technology only; (3) stop advances and share what we already have; or (4) accept business as usual. If the series is to be taken seriously, of course, (4) is a dreadful prospect, but Burke doesn't bother to consider the problems with the others, such as: (1) how "society" is to support everyone dependent on present technology; (2) how to figure out what will be important in the future; or (3) what to do about the fact that most people want more than what they'd get by divvying up present goodies. But anyway, "society" supposedly will do what it will do, so Burke generously offers two options to the "man in the street," to whom he wants to address himself throughout: "You can put your thumb in your mouth and do nothing," or you can take a mallet to your technological possessions (including, by the way, the television bringing you Connections).

Contrary to Burke, however, I have confidence that the "man in the street" can still think and dream of other options. The American public does, indeed, have a great need to understand science and technology, but this mistaken series has done nothing to fill this need.

Bruce Bell has degrees in physics and the history and philosophy of science. As a Reason Foundation fellow, he is currently researching the medical and legal aspects of federal food and drug laws.

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