My one and (so far) only connection with science historian James Burke came about, appropriately, through a connection: a friend who was about to interview the man for the second iteration of his famous television series Connections. The original series, which aired in 10 parts in 1978, was a brain-fizzing history of how several world-changing inventions came about through a daisy-chain of (often inadvertent) innovations and discoveries: e.g., how the increased demand for tapestries during the Little Ice Age laid the foundation for data processing and computers. The fact that some of the connections were more than a little arbitrary was part of the show’s charm: Burke began as a science reporter for the BBC, and his brainy enthusiasm for his subject was irresistible. (Those of you who missed the series can now find it complete and online, so I guess Friday the 13th is your lucky day, eh?) Each episode followed a globe-trotting format, using location shots and re-enactments that kept the show visually interesting without succumbing to vapid flash.
Anyway, my friend was slated to talk with Burke about Connections 2, which was about to air on The Learning Channel — this was, needless to say, the era before the channel abandoned educational programming for Cake Boss and Sarah Palin’s Alaska. He knew my enthusiasm for the 1978 series, so he asked me if there was a question I wanted him to relay to the man himself. I thought for a bit, then told him what to ask.
“You can’t be serious,” he said.
“Go ahead and ask him,” I said.
“I’m not going to ask him that,” he said.
“Go ahead. The answer will probably be interesting.”
So the telephone talk took place as scheduled, and Burke was his usual engaging self. At the end, The Question.
“Mr. Burke, I have a friend who admires your work as much as I do, and he has a question he’d like me to ask you. Unfortunately, it’s a very impertinent one.”
Burke chuckled and said, go ahead.
“Here’s how he phrased it. ‘Mr. Burke, why do so many of the great inventions of mankind seem to require a trip to Bologna?'”
He later said that Burke had a good long laugh, and then admitted that Bologna was one of his favorite places in the world for its scenery, wine, and food, so the moment he managed to wrangle an expense account, he figured out a way to connect with la dotta. Any city nicknamed “the learned one” is certainly appropriate for a man like James Burke.
These days Burke is involved with Knowledge Web, an online method for making your own connections. Time to play.