Thursday, November 3, 1988

Thinking Laterally with James Burke 11/88 (photo)


By Maureen Hurley (The PAPER, Nov. 1988, +photo)

Sonoma State University Lecture Series broke an all-time attendance record Oct. 28; over 2,000 people paid ten bucks a head to hear British author and commentator James Burke expound on unforeseen connections between such unlikely things such as underwear and the printer’s press. Burke, better known to PBS viewers as the host of the acclaimed award-winning BBC television series and best-selling companion books, Connections, and The Day the Universe Changed, wittily untangled the threads of interconnecting events, accidents of time, circumstance, and place which gave rise to ideas: inventions and coincidences which led to technological achievements (or, as he so glibly put it—messes) of today. Burke also offered advice and models for survival in the future.

As BBC’s chief reporter on the Apollo missions to the moon, Burke developed ideas that led to the two popular series for which he received a Royal Television Society silver medal in 1973, and a gold in 1974. For the past year, he has been working on a new series, funded by PBS. “So far, I don’t know what it’s about yet,” he said. The tall, dapper 52-year-old Londoner began his lecture with examples of how science and technology have changed the deep structure of our lives by “altering our society’s perceptions.” He animatedly claimed our concepts of knowledge were “an awful lot of manure.” This irreverent train of thought developed into a lively tale of how horsedung led to the discovery of saltpetre, nitric acid and gunpowder, which led to world models and how they differ.

Burke said, “the model you use controls the universe you believe in.” In other words, “in an Omlet model, you look for the yolk. Black holes don’t fit the model, and are disregarded.” Science has a tendency to “shoehorn the universe into theories to fit the current model,” Burke said, citing the hoax of the Piltdown Man. He asked, “Why does change happen at all? Today, we live according to the latest version of how the universe functions.” He examined these moments of change and how it pertains to modern life—the implications of this approach to knowledge and what it means to our future.

For examples of changing models, he spun wild and witty tales of how the popularity of underwear in the twelfth century led to the invention of the printing press, the Reformation, and the computer. And how studies of “bad smell maps” (aka mal-aria—Italian for “bad air” because people were dying off like flies), led to the invention of air-conditioning, refrigeration, beer-making, guns, rocket fuel and landing on the moon. And the fellow who was trying to invent synthetic quinine from coal tar to combat that pesky malaria problem goofed and got aniline dyes instead (which led to the invention of aspirin, and eventually, the cure for malaria ). Incidentally, those dyes took the Paris fashion world by storm, but that’s a whole other story.

Burke stated the mechanism for change is not always smooth. Models are shifted when unexpected change occurs. Take the canal builder of England who discovered fossils of extinct species (and we know what theory evolved from that discovery). no fossil people were discovered. Suddenly, Man was a pile of chemicals and not God-made. Burke said it’s a “trick of putting things together in new combinations” that leads to new ideas. Quantum mechanics and the theory of relativity are models of a universe that’s not absolute.

Our brain works with associative pathways always making new relationships between facts and data. This associative process handles complex changes rather than the single model system. Burke ticked off examples of “single rigid models gone seriously awry—institutions, ie., the IRS and modern government,” to a wildly cheering audience.

Burke asked, “should we move to a more flexible model? Suppose we could recognize there is no pattern to the universe? How should we prepare for change?” He envisions a more contextual model.”We need to make sure tomorrow’s world is better than today’s. We ordinary human beings have power. We need a pluralist model rather than a single model because we need an infrastructure that is more flexible.” He added, “in children’s education we should teach them to think for themselves, not memorize facts.”

He envisions a world politically pluralist to the extreme; pragmatic, socialistic, culturally varied—what he calls “a balanced anarchy.” Science and technology should enrich our intellectual lives, not just our material lives. The key task for the future is not more new things. The problem is second-guessing the social effects of change. In the ‘50’s, who’d have thought deodorant would make holes in the ozone layer?

“Nothing compares with our brain,” said Burke. A generalist straddles disciplines. We need new information systems, to enfranchise the public to allow us to tap the innovative pool, teach people to think laterally, to daydream, to free people from the drudgery. Our brains are waiting to do this.”

Tuesday, November 1, 1988

Journal entry


My ability to write in my journal has lessened this past year. My journal begins in Guatemala and ends a year later with my return from South America. I've hardly written about anything at all in this year's timeframe. 

I've been in a dream fugue state. it's taking a long time for me to heal. Parts of me will never heal. That's why I didn't write about it. Everything is all jumbled about. 

Meanwhile, I started another journal that overlaps this one by four months. I don't think I'll ever be able to unravel it.

This journal I took to South America. Between the two journals, a record of sorts can be construed. I only hope there's something worth salvaging between the two journals. 

Some news stories, a prose piece, a poem about Creamery Creek. What is considered the right amount of poetry? Who knows?