From the bestselling author of The Knowledge Web come fifty mesmerizing journeys into the history of technology, each following a chain of consequential events that ends precisely where it began. Whether exploring electromagnetic fields, the origin of hot chocolate, or DNA fingerprinting, these essays all illustrate the surprisingly circular nature of change.
In "Room with (Half) a View," for instance, Burke muses about the partly obscured railway bridge outside his home on the Thames, a musing which sets off a chain of thought that leads from the bridge's engineer to Samuel Morse, to firearms inventor Sam Colt, and finally to a trombonist named Gustav Holst, who once lived in the very house that blocks Burke's view.
So it goes with Burke's entertaining and informative essays as each one highlights the interconnectedness of seemingly unrelated events and innovations. Romantic poetry leads to brandy distillation; tonic water connects through Leibniz to the first explorers to reach the North Pole. This unique collection is sure to stimulate and delight history buffs, technophiles, and anyone else with a healthy intellectual curiosity.
Unlike Perry Mason, James Burke does not try to assemble watertight (if convoluted) cases. His essays in the history of technology are more like random walks, paeans to serendipity. In The Knowledge Web
Burke attempted to duplicate on paper the feeling of inter- and cross-linking trends that you find in history and on the World Wide Web. The essays in Circles
are more artificially restricted, topological circles that wrap around. A typical trip goes from the Space Shuttle to Skylab
to Werner von Braun to feedback to digestion to lab animals to the Humane Society to sea rescues to charting sea currents to Foucault to astronomical photography to the solar corona to Skylab
"There are two reasons why I make such play of the unstructured nature of history, but then, in this book, give it a formal shape," Burke says. "One reason is that otherwise these essays would have mirrored the serendipity I described, just going from anywhere to anywhere.... Choosing to go round in circles, and to end each story where it begins, lets me illustrate perhaps the most intriguing aspect of serendipity at work, which shows itself in the way in which history generates the most extraordinary coincidences." He might have added that trying to guess how Burke proposes to connect all this up makes these tales a game for reader as well as writer, a most educational amusement. --Mary Ellen Curtin