Books : reviews

Raymond Baxter, James Burke, Michael Latham.
Tomorrow's World.
BBC. 1970

Within a month of the first Tomorrow’s World – BBC 1’s weekly report on the fast-changing world of science, technology and medicine in July 1965 – viewers were asking for the ‘book of the programme’. This is the result – not only an updated record of some of the most significant and fascinating items that have been shown on television, but also a more detailed account of some of the items which can only be touched on briefly in the programme. It is fully illustrated.

No one book could cover the whole range of Tomorrow’s World, and this selection has been made by Raymond Baxter, James Burke and Michael Latham, the executive editor. The first section, ‘A Day in your Tomorrow’, is concerned with changes and innovations which will affect our daily life – computers, robots, lasers, and so on. Then there are sections on the seas and what may happen in them; on transport; on space-exploration; on machines and materials of the future; and on tomorrow’s medicine and food. Finally the Tomorrow’s World team suggest what life may be like in 150 years time and, in Old Burkster’s Almanac, tell us some of the things which are going to happen in the next 60 years.

Raymond Baxter, James Burke, Michael Latham.
Tomorrow's World Second Volume.
BBC. 1971

In this second book Raymond Baxter, James Burke and Michael Latham of Tomorrow’s World describe new developments in science, medicine, and technology.

It is hard to realise how fast our expectations of what man can do are changing: nearly everyone can remember when a human heart transplant was the stuff of lurid fiction; when a visit to the wastelands of the Moon was wild fantasy; when ideas like plastic eyes that restore sight to the blind, miniature electronic brains, or man-made diamonds and rubies were dreams for schoolboys and mad scientists. Yet they all came true. What lies ahead now?

For each one of us, tomorrow’s world begins only a few brief moments away. And of one thing we can be sure. With every passing month, year, and decade, it will continue to reveal its quota of astonishing developments which ensure that life on Planet Earth will never be quite the same again.

This book looks ahead into this new world by seeing what is happening at the frontiers of science and technology. One chapter considers the potential of ‘Skylab’ and gives a fascinating account of what life in space is really like. Another looks at new advances in medicine – laser-generated 3D displays of X-ray pictures, for example, and yet another at new discoveries in the depths of oceans, and at the hardware which makes their exploitation possible. ‘The Inner World’ is explored in pictures of the microscopic jungle around us, now revealed by new techniques in electron and optical microscopy. There is a discussion of fascinating, and disturbing investigations into the working of the human brain. ‘Larry’ has illustrated a collection of viewers’ ideas on what they think technology should be working to produce – the four-legged chicken, and gravity boots, for instance.

James Burke.
Book Club Associates. 1978

rating : 2.5 : great stuff
review : 9 August 2019

Connections – the companion volume to the BBC television series – is James Burke’s new examination of the ideas, inventions and coincidences that have culminated in the major technological achievements of today.

Connections takes eight innovations on which we now depend and which may prove most influential for this and future generations: the computer, the telephone, the production line, the aeroplane, the atomic bomb, plastics, the guided rocket and television. It untangles the pattern of interconnecting events, the accidents of time, circumstance and place that have given rise to each of these innovations and to a host of others on the way.

In doing so James Burke shows how and why change takes place. Abandoning convention, he demonstrates that history is less a matter of great men and lonely geniuses, more a process involving every member of society – the ploughmen, the carpenters, the metalworkers, the weavers, without whose skills the instruments of invention would not have been available. The background to each event is seen to be 'a fascinating mixture of craftsmanship, climatic change, observation, ambition, deceit, greed, religious belief and war. All have proved vital to the major inventions that have changed the course of history and contributed to the man-made world of today.

This is the book of the TV documentary series written and presented by James Burke, and follows it quite closely. I am actually here reviewing the brilliant TV series here. I watched it on TV when it originally aired in 1978, and then again just recently, 40 years later, on DVD.

Each episode follows a chain of historical events and inventions, from the ancient past, exposes their connections, and demonstrates how they led to a specific technology today. Of course, the events also led to other things today, and other events we necessary to produce the specific technology today: this shows just one thread in a vast complex carpet of events. However, it provides a novel approach to describing history, allows a wide range of technological, political, and economic events to be included, as opposed to the more traditional simple linear view of the inventions that led to a technology. Burke picks out and describes several fascinating threads from that overall weave.

This series has stood the test of those 40 intervening years remarkably well. Some of the target technologies do have a clunky 70s look, obviously, but many of the themes, directions, and dangers Burke covers are still relevant today. The amount and variety of events and technologies covered is wonderful. And the end of Episode Eight (but not in the book, obviously), has what must be one of the best timed scenes in television history. What a professional!

James Burke.
The Pinball Effect.
Little, Brown. 1996

Knowledge has many unforeseen and surprising effects. Like a pinball, a simple discovery in one area can—through necessity, intuition, or serendipity—connect with, bounce off, and redirect the course of another seemingly unrelated discovery made elsewhere in the world or at a distant time. This book, for instance, owes its existence to the German jeweler Johannes Gutenberg’s getting the date wrong one day in the fifteenth century. The science of anthropology might not exist had it not been for the discovery of America. The problems of Italian miners led to learning about the vacuum inside a lightbulb. Renaissance water gardens made the carburetor possible.

James Burke draws on years of research to examine the intrigue and surprises on the journey through knowledge, a trip with all the twists and turns of a detective story. The picture that emerges has far-reaching implications for the future, revealing why the fundamental mechanism of change is the unplanned way ideas come together. To re-create the “pinball effect” of history, this book is designed with cross-chapter references that allow readers to leap from one related discovery to another. The result is a fascinating tour through some of history’s most revolutionary and dramatic innovations.