Sunday, October 21, 2007

Atomic Energy from French Underwear

Back in the seventies, an absolutely fabulous television serious from the BBC , Connections, by James Burke was aired. I remember seeing the show in it's original airing on PBS and in reruns for several years afterwards. I always loved the show -- it is an "Alternate History of Change", that is, why the social fad of wearing underwear led to the computer, or how the focus on the purity of gold by traders in Turkey resulted in the Atomic Bomb.

Weird, perhaps, but absolutely fascinating.

Well, the DVDs of the three original series have been released (and thankfully offered by Netflix!) and the Adorable Husband and I are enjoying every moment of them. A bit cheesy, with the 70s outfits and Star-Trek inspired music, but the shows are an eye-opening look at how history can be interpreted in new and interesting ways -- how sometimes the smallest, oddest discovery can open whole new worlds of possibilities.

I can only imagine the depth of understanding James Burke has for history to be able to link the gold purity example to the Bomb. Strange connection? Well, it's something like 1) early turkish traders figured out how to determine the purity of gold, so 2) metals could be used for money so 3) trade increased dramatically in scope, which led to the discovery of the 4) lateen sail, which allowed tacking into the wind, and needed 5) larger ships that lead to the development of the rudder. Eventually, these large ships moved across the ocean using the 6) compass, but sailors realized that there was a difference between magentic north and true north, so they began to investigate and began to see the 7) gravitational pull in the earth. The scientist figuring this out was interested in meteorology, and began to test gravity in spheres, and discovered that 8) a ball of sulphur would crackle and spark if you rubbed it, and his book on magnets inspired Benjamin Franklin and the discovery of 9) electricity in lightining. From there, interest in weather led to 9) investigation into cloud formations and pressure changes at altitude (with the French spending a lot of time in balloons. One of the first weather stations, at Ben Nevis in Scotland revealed the formation of 10) glories -- haloes around objects in the clouds, which prompted a scientist to build 11) a "cloud machine" which he eventually ran x-rays through to see if they would illuminate the cloud formations. One of the early atomic scientists recognized the photos of the x-rayed cloud formation as being 12) evidence of atomic fission and voila! the bomb was born. With a small side-trip from 10 to the creation of radar which allowed the planes to actually fly to Hiroshima.

Ok, maybe I misssed a small step or two, but it makes for a compelling and interesting series.

If you haven't ever seen the show (or read the book), it's well worth a few evenings.

1 comment:

Laura said...

John *loved* that show! The whole family would watch it back when John was a kid. I saw it once or twice after he raved about it and, indeed, it is awfully cool. And now it's netflixable?? Looks like we have a bit of reordering to do to our queue....