Friday, December 18, 2009

Book Review: Circles by James Burke

I've been a big fan of James Burke since my sister and I used to sit through any of the Connections series reruns that the CBC would pull out of the BBC mothballs whenever they'd run out of Beachcombers episodes to air.

I'm also a big believer in what I'd summarize as the main premise of Burke's work: That many of history's biggest innovations have come from serendipitous cross-pollination between different disciplines of science and industry, and that increasing domain specialization threatens to limit how much of this we may benefit from in the future. Specialization benefits, but also hurts, innovation.

Anyhow, I loved all his mini-series, the Day the Universe Changed, and a number of other works, so I decided to try another of his books.

Circles disappointed a little. It's a series of super-brief, trips through history, connecting inventions and developments from one random connection to the next, before coming full circle. Very much like the Connections series, only with two main limitations: (1) The stories are so brief that we miss the significance of some of the events or technologies mentioned, an (2) some of the connections are so fleeting and random that they don't really feel connected at all.

For example, it's one thing to show that the inventor of technology A was actually an apprentice or brother-in-law to the person who funded the development of technology B. That's a connection, or may be. However, to say that the inventor of technology A lived in the same city as the inventor of technology B, within the same fifty year period, well, that's not necessarily proof they were connected at all, right?

That said, it has his trademark wit, and has enough coverage of broad subject matter that you might find an interesting bit of history to go research further. I recommend it only to the most die-hard Burke fans. Otherwise, start with some of his more famous work.


gritpipe said...

I loved DtUC and Connections as well! Everything after that, though, I felt he was just spinning his wheels. Connections 2 was a serious fail. Super glad I found your blog, though! I hadn't thought about classic Burke in a long time!

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