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October 16, 2003


Connecting navigation to toilet paper
James Burke
James Burke delivered a wide-ranging and engaging lecture on Oct. 2. After the lecture he stayed to chat with audience members.

By Michelle Osmond
Science historian, author and television writer/producer James Burke attracted some very devoted fans on Oct. 2 for the 2003 F. W. Angel Memorial Lecture. He spoke to an enthusiastic crowd of about 175 people, some of whom requested autographs as Mr. Burke mingled with the crowd during a reception afterwards.

The topic of the lecture, which was held by the Faculty of Engineering and Applied Science, was Innovation and Change and Mr. Burke managed to deliver his theories on the complicated and chaotic patterns of history while frequently making the audience laugh with his eclectic approach.

He spoke about several different topics (each one seemingly connected to the next) from how we came to hunt animals for food and how this led to our current democratic society, to how we must use technology to help solve the world’s environmental crisis. He even connected the need for better navigational tools, which lead to improved steel springs for machinery, the patent for which was bought by the same company who, on the same day (just because it was available), bought the patent for a continuous process machine for making wallpaper which led to the invention of toilet tissue.

Mr. Burke's infectious passion for hyper-connections was obvious as he brought audience members on journeys through knowledge, explaining how technology has shaped our culture.

“The brain appears to be naturally configured for innovation to work and to have new ideas because its job is to use information about the world and innovate by modeling new ways in which the state of the world out there might be put together,” said Mr. Burke.

He also gave the audience a preview of an Interactive Knowledge Web he's creating, which is due online next year. With this tool, students can trace just about any innovation to everyone in history to which the inventor was connected. As an example, he used the software to connect Mozart to the invention of helicopters in about a minute flat.

For over 30 years Mr. Burke has produced, directed, written and presented award-winning television series on the BBC, PBS and The Learning Channel, and has written several books. His latest, Twin Tracks: The Unexpected Origins of the Modern World, was published last month by Simon & Schuster.



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Michelle Osmond
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James Burke

Next issue: October 30, 2003

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