The Knowledge Web, by James Burke: A Review


The Knowledge Web, by James Burke (Simon & Schuster, 2000)

The Knowledge Web is a dizzying tour through the history of science and technology, yet thanks to its origins in the pre-“Information Age” culture of research and presentation, it generally succeeds as well as its predecessors, Connections and Connections 2. Why is it the successor? Surprise! Someone decided to change the title on you.

Three documentaries shaped my conception of science and the universe when I was a teenager. I grew up fascinated by all things related to space and astronomy (and, by extension, a lot of science fiction), so Carl Sagan’s Cosmos was an early and important influence. David Attenborough’s The Living Planet was, equally, a deep and compelling view of the world, a follow-up to his earlier series, Life on Earth. I was too young to appreciate the great Jacob Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man in 1974, but have since come to see it and Kenneth Clarke’s Civilisation as the origin of the “big documentary” trend of the 1970s. But it was a ten-part series by BBC science journalist James Burke that, in many ways, had the greatest impact on me, personally. Burke’s vision, and his grasp of the implications of events on the greater web of history, was at once encyclopaedic and remarkable. Add to those facts that all of this was made in an era well before the Internet made research, and particularly spurious research, easier, makes the 1985 series The Day the Universe Changed not only fascinating, but groundbreaking.

Following the template which Burke established in Connections, his 1977 series following the development of technology through history, The Day the Universe Changed was a romp through the history of science, technology, philosophy, and discovery. In a very real sense, it was science and technology as seen through the eyes of a humanities graduate: Burke had studied Italian literature and taught in Italy before joining the BBC in the late 1960s, where he ended up being the face of the Apollo 11 moon landing for British television viewers. Where Connections had sought the linkages between different events which led to great and significant discoveries, The Day the Universe Changed was a history of ideas, of conceptions of the world. It is a series that is still well-worth watching (as, for that matter, is almost anything that Burke has ever made), and may be distinguished, for better or worse, not only by an early display of the virtues of satellite navigation, but with Burke’s prediction of what essentially turned out to be the connectivity and isolationism of the Internet.

In the early-to-mid 1990s, Burke returned to his earlier themes with Connections 2 and Connections 3. The latter series returned not only to the notion of connected discoveries on a theme, but returned to Burke’s fascination with the impact of evolving technology of Western life. And it is this series which is the actual source of the materials covered in the chapters of The Knowledge Web. Which makes the book all the more odd. Let me explain why I think that.

Big, ambitious, multi-episode series like Connections and The Ascent of Man and Cosmos used to have big, lushly-illustrated companion volumes. Yes, it was sometimes possible later to buy a cheap, mass market paperback version that had all of the text but very few of the illustrations, but if you had the cash, or had a birthday coming up, someone sprang for the large format volume with the colour pictures. Call them coffee table books for the PBS crowd if you like, but the companion volumes to the great science and humanities documentaries of the ‘70s and ‘80s could have a lasting influence. You might not be able to hear the voice of James Burke, or Jacob Bronowski, Kenneth Clarke or whomever (this being the pre-home video era), but you could revisit the images and re-read the words, and absorb a bit more of the arguments.

Not so with 1999’s The Knowledge Web. Comparatively few illustrations at all grace this little volume, and I’ve not been able to find any reference to there ever having been a different, bigger, expanded version. So what the reader of The Knowledge Web experiences is James Burke’s characteristic slightly choppy, interwoven style, moving from one character in his historical panorama to the next, and a crude attempt at paper-based hyperlinking, which leads the reader back and forth between the connected characters. Why this was deemed superior to the also-included index is unclear, but it does make The Knowledge Web — should one choose to read it in this way — rather like one of the old Choose Your Own Adventure books of the early 1980s.

Each of Burke’s chapters (or episodes) follows a specific theme. The first chapter, “Feedback,” deals with how information passes back and forth, and the consequences of this very specific form of communication. “What’s in a Name?” moves from breakfast cereals to tanks to Mr. Diesel to Ada Lovelace and beyond. Chapter 3, “Drop the Apple,” follows a course from James Smithson, the founding donor of the Smithsonian Institution, through the Curies, the Liberty Ships, arc lights, and all the way to Einstein. Chapter 4,  “An Invisible Object,” follows a course from black holes, to the red shift, on to American Express and the Pony Express…and so on… in each case, and each chapter, Burke moves from unexpected starting points and takes the reader through the web of interconnectedness which he has divined in the course of history. I’ve only touched very briefly on four of the chapters, and of those, I’ve only skimmed off the barest degree of the subjects touched. The book is packed with almost chatty anecdote from the history of science, technology, and human endeavour.

The fact that Burke’s original model, that of the first Connections and all of its fellow series were accomplished before the advent of the supposedly knowledge-driven (but more appositely drivel-driven) “Internet era” should not surprise anyone familiar with a good reference library, or who learned to do research before Wikipedia was loosed upon the world. Those connections are all around, if the reader were only willing to look. But Burke’s fascination with just how it is that things in history have fit together in unexpected ways to make our modern world also shows us that trying to predict future events is probably futile, just as it would have been futile if attempted by any of the historical figures named in The Knowledge Web. No one link in the chain, Burke all but shouts at us, can ever tell a whole story.

In the end, though, Burke’s book just seems to be missing something, something which is needed to tie the whole thing together. And that something, it seems to me, is Burke himself. Simply put, I believe that Burke is one of those broadcasters whose words cannot merely be read; they must be read by Burke himself. The curatorial aspect which this practiced and witty broadcaster brings to his work almost seems to demand it, at least in my view. The Knowledge Web itself is of course readable and fairly easy to absorb, but this would be more profitably done in conjunction with watching each episode of Connections 3, then reading the relevant chapter for reinforcement. There is so much material to absorb in this book that only the most undistracted mind would be able to take it all in: better to do so in the small, weekly, bite-sized portions that such a series was intended for, rather than trying to consume the whole in one sitting. And better to do so with James Burke’s unique and engaging patterns of rhythm and presentation, combined with three or four decades’ experience in making good television.

So give The Knowledge Web a try… but you might want to take Connections 3 out of your local library at the same time. I think that you will be glad that you did. Four and a half stars.

Fans of Burke are encouraged to search the internet for his work, or to purchase it outright, especially his several television series. As a bonus, listeners who are not already fans of BBC Radio 4’s The Infinite Monkey Cage, a popular science and comedy programme with Professor Brian Cox and comedian Robin Ince, are encouraged to listen to the episode “Science and Spin” from 23 December 2013 (Series 9 , Episode 6), which features James Burke as one of the panel of guests. Follow this link to download the programme for free from the BBC. Enjoy!

Reviewed 25 May 2016.


About Bill Bibliomane

Reader and writer, collector and cataloguer. Amateur mineralogist, astronomer, numismatist, philatelist: I have too many hobbies. I'm somewhat compulsive when it comes to book shopping. Fortunately for my budget, there are no bookshops near to my home. Unfortunately, I've discovered the Internet. I started out reviewing books for my own amusement. Now I've decided to assemble them on my own site.
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3 Responses to The Knowledge Web, by James Burke: A Review

  1. Nice piece! I’m one of those people who grew up watching everything Burke did and I still think he’s a genius and should be producing new shows on the BBC today….


  2. Thanks! It’s always good to run into another fan of James Burke. It is a shame that he’s not making documentaries any longer, I agree. Unfortunately, and I say this in the kindest way possible, he must be getting on a bit, so it may be harder to do the gallivanting around the world that he once did (of course, I don’t know, he could be fit as the proverbial fiddle). And, of course, the scope and aspiration of a Burke-style documentary may now be beyond the Beeb, with all of its various woes. Do listen to the episode of The Infinite Monkey Cage that I linked to if you get a chance, it was recorded a couple of years ago but still a nice chance to hear Mr Burke’s voice again (and the show isn’t all that bad either, usually)!


  3. Pingback: 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed, by Eric Cline: A Review | Books, Reading, and Me: a bibliomane blog

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