James Burke sees random connections in human history

April 03, 1994|By Steve McKerrow | Steve McKerrow,Sun Staff Writer

Do not despair, but after a lifetime studying science and history -- and attempting to explain it to the rest of us on television -- James Burke believes life proceeds largely by chance.

The British television documentarian concedes that great figures history may "nudge" the course of events. But he thinks most of humankind has an almost equal influence.

"It's all random chance, I believe. . . . I don't believe there is a design," he says. "And if there were a design, who . . . would know, when you stumbled across it, whether you were looking at the design or an artifact?"

Far from finding this distressing, however, Mr. Burke wants viewers to believe that they all are equally capable and powerful.

"I want these programs to say, 'Come in, you can do it, you don't have to have a doctorate, you have a hundred billion neurons just like Einstein had. There's no difference between one human brain and another,' " he says in a recent telephone interview on a promotional tour of the United States for his new series, "Connections 2."

The 10-part series of half-hour shows will begin tonight on the Learning Channel, the Maryland-based cable service. The title recognizes Mr. Burke's memorable earlier science history series, Connections," produced for the British Broadcasting Corporation and seen on PBS stations in 1979. The Learning Channel, which also ran the earlier series, claims "Connections" is among the most-watched series presented on TV around the world, with continuing life in video, book and other forms.

"The PR people are calling it a sequel, but it's only a sequel because it follows," Mr. Burke says of his new project. He calls it merely "the next stage" in a succession of programs he has produced since the original "Connections," including "The Real Thing," "The Day the Universe Changed" and "After the Warming."

"In 'Connections 1,' I looked at where some of the technology in the modern world came from. . . . This series is really about the process of change rather than the artifacts," he says.

Thus in "Revolutions," tonight's opening show, the genial, bespectacled host suggests inventor James Watt -- he helped perfect the steam engine, remember? -- is also directly responsible for carbon paper, fertilizer, the telephone, women's liberation, the Apollo moon missions, X-rays and genetic engineering.

Come again?

You must watch to absorb the scope of Mr. Burke's thesis, but it comes down to this: The simplest idea applied to one purpose -- Watt's steam engine was developed to help tin miners in Cornwall -- unpredictably but inevitably leads to a succession of refinements and leaps of purpose that ultimately produce huge technological and social changes.

"You see, I believe that while a person may decide their life is going to be whatever it is, or that they're going to invent something, the way it interacts almost instantly with the rest of society means it will not be what they think it is going to be," the producer says.

"I would say concatenation is what happens: Things fall together to work out. They're not put together, they fall together."

Thus Watt's steam engine produced not only the industrial revolution, but actually changed the human gene pool because of the mixing of populations made possible by expanding travel technology.

As for X-rays, they came about because of the behavior of carbon crystals, which came about because Watt's steam engine led someone else to discover carbon paper and . . . again, you rally have to watch.

Through clever production techniques, Mr. Burke literally travels the world to find and illustrate artifacts that support his theories. The show involved 177 locations in 12 countries.

What about the great shapers of history -- all the people we learn about in school?

Mr. Burke concedes that some may have had somewhat more influence than most people.

"But the millions of ordinary people still have their effect, too. They create a network which effects what the great men try to do, and changes it and affects it," he says.

Laughing, he concedes the notion sounds a lot like the emerging study of "chaos theory," as put forth by Michael Crichton and Steven Spielberg in "Jurassic Park."

"Look, Einstein once said science tells you more about scientists than it does about the universe," he says. "What people decided to look at, and why they decided, is more important in that process than the thing they were looking at."

Mr. Burke credits himself with no unusual powers of perception.

"I just stumbled upon a trick, really. I just happened to be in the right place at the right time -- which is my thesis, anyway."

He relates that in the mid-1960s, the BBC created a science division and sought out humanities experts to begin producing education programming. At the time, Mr. Burke, an Oxford graduate born in Londonderry, in Northern Ireland, had been a teacher of English at universities in Italy and had begun to work in broadcasting on Italian radio.

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