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TV's James Burke: waging a battle against blind certainty

By Arthur UngerStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 14, 1986



New York

`IF you believe that the universe is an omelet, you design instruments to look for traces of intergalactic yolks. When you don't find any, you call it instrument failure,'' says James Burke with a chuckle. This Oxford-educated professor/journalist has become a well-known television personality in Britian and, perhaps, a familiar face to viewers in the United States who saw his PBS series, ``Connections.''

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In an interview during a US tour, Mr. Burke doesn't hesitate to criticize science for twisting scientific findings to fit a constantly changing set of hypotheses. ``Science,'' he says with a sad shake of the head, ``only gives up its hypotheses when there is no alternative but to say, `All right, we're wrong.' ''

Burke is host of the new PBS series ``The Day the Universe Changed,'' which premi`ered last night and continues (Mondays, 8 p.m., check local listings) through Dec. 15. He is author of the companion book of the same title. Both works examine the birth of the major ideas and institutions that have shaped the Western world at critical periods.

The discoveries, according to Burke, have not only altered our lives but resulted in fundamental transformations of our concepts of ourselves and the world.

The new series is the third in a trilogy that includes ``Connections'' and ``The Real Thing,'' both of which aired first on BBC1. Burke, who was born in Northern Ireland, sees himself as an instructor in a kind of egalitarian classroom of the air. He insists that ``there are no bad students, only inadequate educational systems. Too often people who are rejected by the system regard themselves as failures. What I am trying to do with these silly programs is to say that knowledge is not inaccessible, and, therefore, you are not what the system told you you are. It sounds pompous, but I think most of the blue-collar people who watch the programs I do gain most of all in confidence.''

Burke says that his audience on BBC1 is a ``pop mass audience,'' and he hopes the series will reach non-elitist viewers here. He notes, however, that the educational levels in the two countries differ greatly. ``With the greatest respect,'' he ventures warily, ``our B.A. college-educated person is much more specialist-educated than yours, although your doctorate level is up and beyond ours. So the average B.A. here is going to be further down towards my general audiences in England.''

``The Day the Universe Changed'' is studded with flashes of insight amid its potpourri of intellectual revelations. Burke believes that it will encourage viewers to examine what they know, digest what he has to tell them, and come up with, possibly, a new way of looking at things.

Some of the subjects covered in the 10 programs: culture's view of itself; the recovery of Greek manuscripts in Toledo by the Crusaders; the importation of Arabic sciences into Italy; the invention of printing; the impact of Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, and Newton; the Industrial Revolution; the rise of modern medicine; Darwin's theory of evolution; the discovery of electricity. Burke makes putting together the pieces of the jigsaw of knowledge an exciting, informative, and stimulating game.