Last night I re-watched the first episode of James Burke’s 1985 history/science series, The Day the Universe Changed. If you’ve never had a had a chance to watch it, find it in your local library or watch it on Youtube (thank you Gary C for the link) you won’t regret it.
James Burke is a personal hero of mine. I fell in love with his work in Grade 9 when I stumbled across his shows on The Learning Channel. I even emailed with him in my second year of undergrad in the hopes of securing a summer job (I wasn’t successful).
There are so many things I learnt from Burke that have stayed with me over the past 2 decades but three things really stuck out as I re-watched the first episode.
First, I’ve always admired his ability to take incredibly complex ideas and make them not only easy to understand, but fun and engaging. Part of it is his passion: Here is a man with a sharp mind, a glint in his eye, and a heart in love with his chosen subject. But watching the episode, it is obvious that the script is meticulously planned. So as Burke hops around the world, every word, every scene, every prop, helps advance the idea and narrative he is conveying. Had TED talks been available over the internet in 1985, I think James Burke would have been the master TED talk presenter (and more of a household name today). I spend a good part of my life trying to convey ideas, and it’s fun to go back and see a master at work.
Second, James Burke is the first person who made me consciously comfortable with complexity. I always loved history (I ultimately majored in it) but until I met Burke history was always conveyed in a nice neat linear fashion. Burke tore that notion up. He weaves together complicated tapestries (which in the medium of television is no small feat) of not just science, history and social change, but also of luck, chance and misfortune to help paint a picture of how we ended up being both who we are, and where we are. Reflecting on my most recent talk on the future of government and on a recent blog post, I’ve frequently talked about how:
The biggest problem in predicting the future isn’t envisaging what technologies will emerge – it is forecasting how individuals and communities will respond to these technologies. In other words I often find people treat technology as a variable, but social values as a constant.
Watching Burke yesterday, I realized that 20 years ago he shared this idea with me first. If I’m comfortable with the complexity of this type of thinking today, it’s because he’s given me two decades to first get comfortable, and then mature intellectually, with it.
So if you are interested, go find a copy of The Day the Universe Changed. It is a wonderful defense of curiosity and asking questions, no matter what powers or issues that puts you at odds with. It’s that curiosity that Burke made me aware of in myself, and that today fuels and motivates me.
Thank you James.