The Knowledge Web
From Electronic Agents to Stonehenge and Backand Other Journeys Through Knowledge
By James Burke
Simon & Schuster, $25
“Thinking,” Chesterton declared, “means connecting things.” Stephen Jay Gould once remarked that his chief talent was the ability to see connections between things that to most people seem unrelated. Similarly attuned to subtle links, James Burke has lately made the very word “connections” his own by using it to title both his popular books and his acclaimed series on The Learning Channel, with Connections 3 coming to a TV screen near you.
The history of science is the history of our gradual realization of the interconnectedness of all lifeindeed, of all matter. Biologists discovered that the lives of plants and animals are so intricately intertwined that they evolved (and are continuing to evolve) together. Physicists proved that matter and energy are different forms of the same phenomenon. Psychologists found links between our genes, upbringing, emotions, and motivations.
In his new book The Knowledge Web, James Burke once again hosts a masterful tour of history and science and culture. He is a knowledgeable man and a graceful writer. His vast understanding, whimsical turn of mind, and wealth of anecdotes combine to create an enlightening but quite painless journey.
For example, in his first chapter, “Feedback,” Burke begins with a brief account of how, throughout history, each new advance in information technology has inspired opposition, partially because some people always fear that more easily accessible information will destabilize society. Then he progresses from topic to topic in his natural, conversational style. Soon we are leaping merrily along from early vivisectionists’ work on the physical effects of emotion, to how the Atlantic telegraph cable was finally accomplished, to the story of Lord Nelson and Lady Hamilton, to the unlikely pairing of the invention of bleach and the manufacture of Corn Flakes.
In The Knowledge Web, Burke performs a bookish version of prowling the World Wide Web. When the timeline of one of his 10 journeys through history crosses that of another, a footnote with one or more page references appears in the margin. At that point, you can skip to the indicated pages to discover yet another link between the chapters. There are 142 such gateways, offering in theory 142 ways to read this book. Or you can follow the simple, old-fashioned route and read it from beginning to end.
Here is an example of how casually Burke points out resonant tidbits that the rest of us never stop to think about: “Western institutions function as if the world had not changed since they were established to deal with the specific problems of the time. Fifteenth-century nation-states, emerging into a world without telecommunications, developed representative democracy; 17th-century explorers in need of financial backing invented the stock market; in the 11th century the influx of Arab knowledge triggered the invention of universities to process the new data for student priests.”
Whimsical and individual Burke may be, but his connections are not forced and they are not trivial. Two quotations come to mind when reading his work. One is G.L. Lowes’ claim that the imagination “pierces through dissimilarity to some underlying oneness.” The other is the dictionary definition of the word “art,” which traces its meaning to the Latin word for “joining” and to the Greek for “arranging.” James Burke’s artistic imagination, informed by its passion for science and history, possesses the ability to pierce through all sorts of dissimilarity to the underlying oneness that lifts knowledge to the level of wisdom.
In the hierarchy of learning, there are several levels. If we begin with lowly data, the next step up would be the consolidation of data into informationthe loose association of data at, say, the level of a trivia game. The step at which information is sorted and classified and genuinely understood is knowledge. But above all these is wisdomthe point at which connections between various kinds of knowledge become apparent and reveal their true significance in our lives. James Burke, the supreme generalist, isn’t merely knowledgeable. He is wise.
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Thanks so much for the fun read! Have a great summer.
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