Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Pinball Effect by James Burke

I originally posted this review at Infrastructure Watch, where I write about civil infrastructure, the environment and other matters of technology.

Burke, James. The Pinball Effect: How Renaissance Water Gardens Make the Carburetor Possible—and Other Journeys Through Knowledge. Boston: Little, Brown, 1996.

Reading The Pinball Effect may leave you feeling like a pinball, bouncing from one thing to another quickly. In places, it’s like a bee, tasting many flowers, but never lingering on one.

Burke is more interested in the links between ideas, innovations and inventions. He touches on many of the important technologies, science, events and movements from a broad section of history, but his subject is the more elusive connections between them.

To Burke, all knowledge is linked, so it doesn’t matter where you start. He starts with hairdressing, which leads to improvements in cruise ships. Before the journey is through, he touches on steam power, the major scientific breakthroughs of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, several political and religious movements of that time, Robin Hood, fairy tales and the telephone. That is just a fraction of the nodes on Burke’s web of knowledge.

Burke further indicates the web-like linkages between ideas by including “gateways” in his book. These marginal notations serve as a print version of a hyperlink. The book bounces around plenty if you read it straight through, so the gateways amount to a gimmick. I wasn’t tempted to read the book in any more than one of the 447 ways made possible by the gateways. If you’d like to flip back to a previous, related section, the gateways will save you a trip to the index.

The book is interesting, especially as a quick survey of the ideas that have shaped our history, especially our science and technology. It is also disorienting. Burke tries to capture the strings on the web of knowledge, the links between ideas, but it seems the one can only really see the nodes, the particular events of history and inventions. It is something like connect-the dots. Burke can show us many dots, and he does, and indicate that they are connected by leaping from one to the next, usually sensibly, but to some degree, it is still up to the reader to draw the connections.

Order this book here.