With an impressive computer-generated collage of historical images and sound clips, Connections2 quickly dispenses with the formalities and thrusts the viewer into another exciting episode. The long-awaited follow-up to Burke’s original 1979 PBS series, Connections2, originally aired on TLC, is another dazzling collection of science historian James Burke’s historical examinations. The first volume, part of a complete collection available at the Olin library, includes four half-hour episodes, the first of which is reviewed here.
“Revolutions”, the first episode, begins with Burke taking us back to 1750’s West England, where James Watt, attempting to amend the problem of stalled water pumps, discovered the power of steam, an idea which transferred to America and later set off the industrial revolution. His discovery, through a mesmerizing development spanning 200 years, leads to almost every important invention and scientific achievement in our nation’s history, from carbon paper and steam engines to the telephone, television and X-rays. What is more amazing than this progression, however, is how Burke is able to trace it so effortlessly in the span of half an hour.
Balding and bespectacled, Burke stands with a confident poise in front of the camera with a countenance that assures the viewer that, by the end of this episode, he will have enriched the viewer exponentially. He moves quickly, but does not lose us. Walking through locations as diverse as a 19th century train car, a high-rise elevator and a space shuttle launch pad, he begins at each spot by making what at first seems an outrageous claim, and then takes his time to make it plausible. For instance, at the shuttle launch pad, Burke indicates that, “thanks to James Watt,” the entire nation could watch the launch of the first Apollo mission. He then backtracks to explain, calmly and confidently, how a German scientist used phosphorous and cathode rays to create visible electricity. He then backtracks even more to explain how a German chemist name Lieber, inspired by Watt’s method of using steam for energy, discovered phosphorous while burning greenery. Later scientists would harness and project this visible electricity, giving us television.
Burke ends each scene of the documentary with a profound explanation, sure to elicit “ahh’s” from any attentive viewer. He has a knack for making learning fun, enjoyable, and worth the viewer’s time. The subject matter of his documentaries on its own may not interest the common viewer. James Watt usually does not earn a second glance when mentioned in textbooks, but after viewing “Revolutions,” one would be hard-pressed to forget about his valuable contributions to the world today.
Burke is an expert on learning and, as such, he makes it easy to listen to him. He commands his audience’s attention not through a pompous display of overwhelming knowledge, but with a voice laden with the thrill of discovery and enlightenment. His October 4th convocation should be quite entertaining, as his talk exposes even more profound connections from the past and the present.
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