Monday, November 14, 2016

Circles by James Burke

Circles is a collection of essays that science journalist James Burke wrote for Scientific American. These 50 short histories focus on science and technology, as you might expect from the magazine that originally published them. Burke also covers culture and literature, which are inextricably tangled in those other subjects anyway.

The conceit of these essays is that they start and end at more or less the same place, making a circle. These trips through history, like history itself, are hardly tidy little circles. Burke skips from place to place, person to person, and period to period like a mad time traveler. The jumps are not random, each step has a connection to its predecessor, eventually finding a connection back to the starting point. Even so, the effect is sometimes chaotic.

I think Burke wanted to convey something of the chaos of history. It is easy to look at the history of some bit of science or technology and see it as a clearly delineated arc. We make superhighways from early concept to full-fledged idea and fly by everything else without noticing it. Burke takes the scenic route, noting the oddball side trips and serendipitous stumbles that are the typical milestones of our creeping advancement in knowledge.

The approach doesn’t allow Burke to dive deep into any subject, but that is not what he wanted to do. That is why I would recommend it to other amateur historians. You can play the honeybee with Burke, flitting from flower to flower and sipping the nectar of each. Along the way you are likely something that intrigues you. You could start a historical journey of your own.

James Burke also wrote The Pinball Effect.

If you’re interested in this book, you may also be interested in

Burke, James. Circles: 50 Round Trips through History, Technology, Science, Culture. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000.