Tuesday, December 10, 2019 Text is available under the CC BY-SA 3.0 licence.

James Burke (science historian)

British science historian, author and television producer best known for his documentary television series focusing on the history of science and technology leavened with a sense of humor.
Never before have so many people understood so little about so much.
Burke quotes
If you believe that science and technology have given us the highest standard of living in history or that they have trapped us inside of a machine we can't escape from, we live in a situation we inherited, as a result of a long and complex series of events through history. At no time in the past could anybody have known that what they were doing then would end up like this now.
When any good attitude or concept or system worked well, we hung onto it. We preserved representative democracy, intended for a time when only a few could get to the capital to speak for the many. Modern finance was designed in the 17th century. Literacy as a test of intelligence came in the 15th century. The idea of progress is 19th century. And yet, all of those things are part of our mental furniture today, because when the answer to a question -- a solution to a problem -- suits us, we kind of institutionalize it, so that it won't change even when we do. The business of questioning, itself, has been institutionalized like that, in the kind of place that Jodrell Bank telescope belongs to: a university.

You see how increasingly the only way we in the advanced industrial nations, with our bewildering technology network, can survive, is by selling bewilderment and dependence on technology to the rest of the world. Or is it not bewilderment and dependence, but a healthier wealthier better way of living than the old way? And, yet, whether or not you dress up technology to look local, the technology network is the same. And as it spreads, will it spread the ability to use machines, as we do, without understanding them?
Take movement for example. Forces acting up, down, or from side to side. You make theories to explain it all, but you might well remember that it was you that invented them all. For Mach there was no reason to believe the rest of the cosmos was doing what your little bit was doing, so science should only describe not try to explain. Even description is relative. Am I moving or is the back ground? Or take the position of a star. It depends on the position you see it from, which depends on the date and time, which in turn depends on the position of the earth, in a solar orbit, in a solar system, moving around the edge of a Galaxy which may be moving away from other Galaxies. Say that you've decided that I'm moving and the background is standing still. Is the background moving relative to something else?
An invention acts rather like a trigger, because, once it's there, it changes the way things are, and that change stimulates the production of another invention, which in turn, causes change, and so on. Why those inventions happened, between 6,000 years ago and now, where they happened and when they happened, is a fascinating blend of accident, genius, craftsmanship, geography, religion, war, money, ambition... Above all, at some point, everybody is involved in the business of change, not just the so-called "great men." Given what they knew at the time, and a moderate amount of what's up here [pointing to head], I hope to show you that you or I could have done just what they did, or come close to it, because at no time did an invention come out of thin air into somebody's head, [snaps fingers] like that. You just had to put a number of bits and pieces, that were already there, together in the right way.
Following the trail of events from some point in the past to a piece of modern technology is rather like a detective story, with you as the detective, knowing only as much as the people in the past do, and like them having to guess at what was likely to happen next.
The question is in what way are the triggers around us likely to operate to cause things to change -- for better or worse. And, is there anything we can learn from the way that happened before, so we can teach ourselves to look for and recognize the signs of change? The trouble is, that's not easy when you have been taught as I was, for example, that things in the past happened in straight-forward lines. I mean, take one oversimple example of what I'm talking about: the idea of putting the past into packaged units -- subjects, like agriculture. The minute you look at this apparently clear-cut view of things, you see the holes. I mean, look at the tractor. Oh sure, it worked in the fields, but is it a part of the history of agriculture or a dozen other things? The steam engine, the electric spark, petroleum development, rubber technology. It's a countrified car. And, the fertilizer that follows; it doesn't follow! That came from as much as anything else from a fellow trying to make artificial diamonds. And here's another old favorite: Eureka! Great Inventors You know, the lonely genius in the garage with a lightbulb that goes ping in his head. Well, if you've seen anything of this series, you'll know what a wrong approach to things that is. None of these guys did anything by themselves; they borrowed from other people's work. And how can you say when a golden age of anything started and stopped? The age of steam certainly wasn't started by James Watt; nor did the fellow whose engine he was trying to repair -- Newcomen, nor did his predecessor Savorey, nor did his predecessor Papert. And Papert was only doing what he was doing because they had trouble draining the mines. You see what I'm trying to say? This makes you think in straight lines. And if today doesn't happen in straight lines -- think of your own experience -- why should the past have? That's part of what this series has tried to show: that the past zig-zagged along -- just like the present does -- with nobody knowing what's coming next. Only we do it more complicatedly, and it's because our lives are that much more complex than theirs were that it's worth bothering about the past. Because if you don't know how you got somewhere, you don't know where you are. And we are at the end of a journey -- the journey from the past.
So, in the end, have we learned anything from this look at why the world turned out the way it is, that's of any use to us in our future? Something, I think. That the key to why things change is the key to everything. How easy is it for knowledge to spread? And that, in the past, the people who made change happen, were the people who had that knowledge, whether they were craftsmen, or kings. Today, the people who make things change, the people who have that knowledge, are the scientists and the technologists, who are the true driving force of humanity. And before you say what about the Beethovens and the Michelangelos? Let me suggest something with which you may disagree violently: that at best, the products of human emotion, art, philosophy, politics, music, literature, are interpretations of the world, that tell you more about the guy who's talking, than about the world he's talking about. Second hand views of the world, made third hand by your interpretation of them. Things like that [art book] as opposed to this [transparency of some filaments]. Know what it is? It's a bunch of amino acids, the stuff that goes to built up a worm, or a geranium, or you. This stuff [art book] is easier to take, isn't it? Understandable. Got people in it. This, [transparency'] scientific knowledge is hard to take, because it removes the reassuring crutches of opinion, ideology, and leaves only what is demonstrably true about the world. And the reason why so many people may be thinking about throwing away those crutches is because thanks to science and technology they have begun to know that they don't know so much. And that, if they are to have more say in what happens to their lives, more freedom to develop their abilities to the full, they have to be helped towards that knowledge, that they know exists, and that they don't possess. And by helped towards that knowledge I don't mean give everybody a computer and say: help yourself. Where would you even start? No, I mean trying to find ways to translate the knowledge. To teach us to ask the right questions. See, we're on the edge of a revolution in communications technology that is going to make that more possible than ever before. Or, if thatís not done, to cause an explosion of knowledge that will leave those of us who don't have access to it, as powerless as if we were deaf, dumb and blind. And I don't think most people want that. So, what do we do about it? I don't know. But maybe a good start would be to recognize within yourself the ability to understand anything. Because that ability is there, as long as it is explained clearly enough. And then go and ask for explanations. And if you're thinking, right now, what do I ask for? Ask yourself, if there is anything in your live that you want changed. That's where to start.
Television tells us everyday that we live in a world we don't understand. And yet in the main it does little to explain that world. It tells us of new products that make the products we have either old-fashioned or obsolete. Above all, if today we are aware of how fast the world around us is changing, it's because television acts as a relentless reminder of that fact.
A ritual wouldn't be much of a ritual if you didn't feel like you've been put through the ringer, would it?

... Any one of a million things could fail and cause our complex civilization to collapse for an hour, for a day, or however long. That's when you find out the extent to which you are reliant on technology and don't even know it. That's when you see that it's so interdependent, that if you take one thing away, the whole thing falls down and leaves you with nothing.
The name of the game here, and in all the institutions that run your life, is keeping order, because if the institutions didn't do that, it would be the end of civilization as we know it, wouldn't it? So, the institutions are usually old-fashioned; don't like change.
Burke quotes
Einstein's theory was that everything about the laws of the universe and nature was relative. What you observe about something depends greatly upon your frame of reference at the time. That's why I can stand here in this concord cabin and drop my pen in comfort. In here I'm not traveling 1,400mph, am I? Everything works like that. Conditioned by its frame of reference. All the electronics in all the instruments in this cockpit obey the exact same laws they would if the plane were standing still. Because in this frame, like me they are not traveling at Mach two. And all the laws of nature behave the same way. This beam of light is going out in all directions at 186,000 miles per second. Being on the concord makes no difference to it's speed going forward, backwards sideways.
If something becomes common enough to turn into a ritual, and then starts to involve really large numbers of people, that's when the ritual becomes something else. It becomes widespread enough to affect the general agreement we all share. So, that's when the responsibility for running it goes out of your hands to be taken over by the institutions set up to run the rituals that matter on a regular basis, so that people can have clear rules and regulations to follow if they decide to get up to that particular ritual. The institutions take the admin out of daily life and run it for you: banking, government, sewage, tax collecting. Or, if you break the rules and regulations, one institution can take you out of daily life. This one: (James Burke displays a trial.) In every community, the law -- whether it's dressed up like this or the village elders telling you what the local custom is -- the law is all those rules I was on about earlier. I suppose what institutions like this do, most of all, is the dirty work. While they're putting them away here in the law court, for instance, that leaves us free to get on with making money, having a career, and avoiding the social responsibilities that these people have to deal with. And after a few centuries of this buck-passing, the institutions get big and powerful, and reach into everybody's lives so much they become hard to alter and virtually impossible to get rid of.
We expect to learn new tricks because one of our science based abilities is being able to predict. That after all is what science is about. Learning enough about how a thing works so you'll know what comes next. Because as we all know everything obeys the universal laws, all you need is to understand the laws.
This bomber stands for the interdependent world we have made for ourselves; where the rate of change accelerates every second because every one of man's inventions acts like a trigger to cause change.
These are the great ancient temples of Karnak, on the edge of the Nile about 450 miles south of Cairo. They were the center of Egyptian religion, built in the imperial city of Thebes, when the Egyptian empire was at its height, the greatest power in the world. This was the New York of its time. The temples were built over a period of 2,000 years, each pharaoh adding his bit, leaving his name in stone, to last forever. Inside the temple domain, there were 65 towns, 433 gardens & orchards, 400,000 animals, and it took 80,000 people just to run the place. Small wonder that centuries afterwards the Greeks and Romans came here and gawked like peasants at a civilisation that made their efforts look like well-dressed mud huts. It still has that effect today. You come here from the great modern cities, full of the immense power of modern technology at your finger tips, press a button, turn a switch. And this place... stops you dead.
Karnak was the first great statement of what technology could do with unlimited manpower and the approval of the gods. Ironically, the modern equivalent lies, again, in the desert. This time, the nomads also settled by a river... a river of oil. But what had took the pharaohs 4,000 years to build took the Kuwaitis 4,000 days. What's happened in Kuwait, the change from a nomadic existence to being able to buy and use everything modern technology has to offer has come in much less than one generation. Kuwait represents the immense power of technology used in a way most of us have never experienced, because we've lived with the kind of change it can bring for more than a hundred years. Here it's been focused. Change has been instant and total. Kuwait has suddenly become like New York, or any other of the great urban islands on technology, totally dependent on that technology. Like them, without it, Kuwait would return to the desert.
Copernicus published his manuscript in 1543 just in time for the council of Trent. So you're a church father and what this new system of Copernicus is saying is this: The Earth moves, although the Bible says it doesn't. It's no longer at the center of God's universe, although the Bible says it is. It's a planet, so heaven and Earth are no longer separate. And Aristotle was wrong, although church authority depends on him being right. You're a church father and you pick up this subversive, heretical, revolutionary piece of lunacy and you start foaming at the mouth, right? Wrong. When the council finally got around to reading Copernicus they were delighted. His new system had made calendar reform more precise. And the business of it turning every basic belief about the universe on its head? A mere fairytale since from the church's viewpoint he was talking nonsense. Astronomy drew lines and circles in the sky but they weren't really there, they're a mathematical convenience for measuring or teaching astronomy. While the Copernicus system might well have been brilliant mathematics, no one thought for a minute that he was actually suggesting the earth was whizzing around the sun. That kind of talk would blow holes in everything.

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