James Burke at @rigb_science

I was at the Royal Institution yesterday to listen to James Burke, science historian, BBC broadcaster of yore, and producer and host of the documentary Connections (1978), speak about making connections that stimulate innovation in a modern world. To be honest, I was only a bit familiar with Burke’s work before I watched him speak (he apparently mentioned, tongue-in-cheek, that people younger than 50 wouldn’t have heard of him and people older than that would think he was dead!). The talk has, however, motivated me to go and watch Connections soon, and read his book of the same name, which examines “the ideas, inventions, and coincidences that have culminated in the major technological advances of today”, where he explains much of what was covered in the talk: “the pattern of interconnecting events: the accidents of time, circumstance, and place that gave rise to the major inventions of the world”.

Elements of Burke’s talk might seem simplistic when considered in isolation, but the wonder is in his mapping of connections between events, people, places and things. A virtual minefield of trivia questions can be gathered from his work. As an example, he mentioned the links between Richard Arkwright, who is widely credited with having invented the spinning frame, Joseph Black, a physician and professor at the University of Glasgow who is credited with discovering carbon dioxide and James Watt who was a friend and collaborator of Black’s in his laboratory, and of course the man behind the steam engine. They are, as we all know, key figures behind the Industrial Revolution which changed the face of the world – Arkwright is in fact known as the Father of the revolution. One could argue, as an audience member pointed out, that this knowledge can be obtained from Google, but the fact is that the underlying connections are rarely plotted and made accessible in this way, and if we are to head into the future with an iota of power, as a race, then we need to encourage youngsters to make these lateral connections almost naturally, because that’s where innovation comes from.

Burke’s key thesis was that reductionism has led to the super-specialising of disciplines: from electrocardiography to criminology we filter knowledge down to the most basic level. But whereas that was useful in the past – when in need of expertise, go to the person who knows most about it – access to information and technology have enabled anyone to learn a fair amount about a subject very easily. Earlier, when journalists asked a specialist about something, they could fob it off saying that wasn’t *their* specific field of expertise, but now they don’t have much of an excuse because it is easier for journalists and specialists alike to make these links. I’m thinking of Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight, but never mind.

Burke answered an audience question from an inventor using the same principle: technology makes it easier to look for trends when you are working on a new invention, so you can check to make sure it hasn’t been invented already. In the same vein, if you are successful, that success will be magnified a hundredfold.

He also warned of the dangers of continuing to educate children along the path of specialising in subjects. Earlier, PhDs, nuclear physicists and so on were much coveted as there were so few of them. But now those numbers are rising, and they’re not that special anymore. To be clear, he didn’t knock specialists as much as he tried to make a case for entrepreneurialism, which require generalists who have a talent for making lateral connections across disciplines. That also made me think about the recent discussion in the advertising industry, of hiring T-shaped people: developers and designers are absolutely required to execute, but to generate ideas, it’s the bar along the top, or the generalists, that are vital.

Burke has started the KnowledgeWeb project to advance this issue that he clearly feels very strongly about. Based on free software provided by a site called The Brain, he hopes to launch it next year. He says it will be very unlike Wikipedia in that though the site will be open, the facts presented will be locked – they won’t have an ideological bent to them.

Some of what he said is to be taken with a pinch of salt: his opinion that the next big revolution, after the agricultural and Industrial revolutions, will be the nanotechnology revolution in about three decades or so, which will necessitate a shift in the way society operates, for example. He says that we’re still tied to a system of government which is based on ancient principles – members of the public used specific people to represent them in court as they couldn’t travel the hundreds of miles required themselves, but even today we elect people to represent us, though that is not the case anymore. He believes that technological progress will lead to erosion in power and politics, and that could lead to social upheaval which we need to prepare ourselves for – another argument for innovation even in the way we operate as a society.

I don’t think that there will be a revolution, any more than I am not disappointed by the lack of robots in our daily lives today. I think the pace of change will be more gradual than we think, and people will get used to it. But yes – get used to it I think they will have to, and I am certainly behind his movement for cross-discipline education.

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