Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Butterflies and Billiards

Review: The Pinball Effect by James Burke


James Burke, founder of The Knowledge Web, who hosted TV's Connections and The Day the Universe Changed, brought his view of the interconnected nature of technological change to this collection of essays. With the network of shotgunned factoids that once characterized his TV essays, Burke sets out to reveal once again how one discovery leads to, not another one, but to multiple others.

Supporting this interconnectedness is a hyperlink gimmick, in which footnote numbers refer the us to a link between the current factoid and one buried further along in the book. 

I last saw this technique used in a juvenile "multiple endings" novel.

Some of the connections revealed by following these links are interesting, but others are a bit of a stretch. For example, the imposition of heavy import duties on fabrics by the Sun King's Minister of Finance, Colbert, is linked to Impressionism and the development of the RGB monitor by way of M.E. Chevreul, the head director of dyeing at the Gobelins tapestry factory in Paris.

Many of the capsule essays in the book (as opposed to the wider network of connections) have made their way to TV. "Hot Pickle," for example, details how spices were the driving motivation for the development of smart bombs (via exploration, leading to the need for better fuel and driving engines, from there to air conditioning, Corning glass and fiberglass, and onward to lasers. The Learning Channel produced it as a separate hour-long feature; Hot Pickle ran again just a few weeks ago, and I was reminded of its source.

So while the book is amusing, with a pleasing focus on progress and technological development, it fails to provide a real sense of the history involved. What Burke has done is provide a series of science sound-bites, carefully calculated to keep the attention of those with short spans. "See, here's a pretty fact! Look, how shiny! But now look, look, no, look here..." This cajoling approach to science history does quite well on TV, but fails to entice in book format.

The one place this book works well is the bathroom. As a short-span reader, it equals most editions of Uncle John's Bathroom Reader, because you get a satisfying sense of informing your brain (however shallowly) while taking care of other business. 

Plus, James Burke, so there's that.