Watching Connections again

Last night we watched the first two episodes of the Connections series. If you haven’t seen the show before, it’s a 10-episode series from 1978, hosted by James Burke, about the history of science. At least, that’s the shortest way to explain it. Basically, it’s the prototype for all sorts of history and science programming.

Despite being 30 years old, it is still amazing. The storytelling mesmerizes, getting deep into detail, then leaping across hundreds of years, making strange but entirely logical connections through from the 1965 New York City blackout back to the pyramid of Djoser, then forward again, from the invention of money to the Enola Gay, and so on, etc. (So yes: Connections.) The visuals are fantastic, especially for the time, with both modern film of say, Kuwaitis with hunting falcons, and crazy recreations of storms at sea. Plus, despite the fascination with the story of science and technology, Burke is really thoughtful about the implications of technology: “the technology trap.” It’s not an unthinking celebration of either science or technology. (Sometimes it even takes a fairly dark turn.)

For me, personally, there’s even more to it than just a great TV show. When I was a preteen, Connections played during the daytime on KCET in the summer. Us girls watched it together, several times, and I loved it. In the 20+ years since then, I think I’ve seen part of it once or twice on VHS from the library.

Now, having just watched the first two episodes again on DVD (thanks, Netflix!), I realize just how much of an effect it had on my entire intellectual life since then. As he’s talking, I think of other books I’ve read since then that fill in details, or that have the same way of leaping and connecting. (Steven Johnson, I’m looking at you.) In particular, any sort of science history that tells a story just sucks me in, so that now I have a head full of random snippets of information.

(Plus, I fear that Burke’s narrative style had a little too much influence on the way I talked when I was ten or eleven years old, which did me no favors at school.)

I’m really excited about watching the rest of the show…and I think you should watch it too.

PS: having the laptop open during the show, looking up stuff on Wikipedia and whatnot…awesome, if a little overwhelming.