TV's James Burke: waging a battle against blind certainty
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.''
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.
He says he has had greater success in getting American academics to participate in his programs than he has with British scholars. ``Our academics tend to have nothing to do with television, because we have a more elitist academic system. Yours don't appear on TV because you don't ask them. Conversely, when I go to a professor in England it tends to be, `Well, the professor will answer your questions if you put them in writing.' Here I once rang up one of your greatest intellectuals and asked whether I could talk to him briefly on the phone. `Buy me a hamburger, and you get my brain for two hours,' he said. That would never happen in Europe.''
Burke says he doesn't want to give the impression that the series traces the entire history of man's knowledge, but only moments when significant bits of knowledge changed in ways that had enormous impact: ``For instance, what happened when the Crusaders discovered the Greek texts when they took Toledo and how this mass of knowledge, together with the Aristotelian system, radically changed the intellectual life of Europe. That caused universities to come into existence.''
Does Burke envision some changes soon to emerge in our own society?
``I believe with the advent of the fifth-generation computers -- the ones which will be able to infer and have associational data bases, structures approaching the structure of the human brain -- we will come to realize that we don't discover, we invent. . . . We manufacture knowledge, and we move from hypothesis to proof and often twist reality to fit the hypothesis.
``I believe that in the next generation or two we will have to face a major social problem: If we do manufacture knowledge, how can we ever know that the instruments tell us the real thing about what's there. Einstein said that science is a matter of describing what instruments say, of describing what observers see, but not about anything real. He says that, in examining the universe, you alter it. So how can you ever know that you've examined the real thing?
``So, if we agree that we manufacture knowledge, it seems to me that the greatest change will be that we will have to make social decisions, finally, about what kind of knowledge to manufacture -- what used to be called `technology assessment.' Either we prepare for it, or there will be the potential for a totalitarian society like never before, because these machines will provide immense power, and the power needs to be in the hands of the right people.''
Although Burke says he was influenced somewhat by the late Jacob Bronowski (``The Ascent of Man''), he is ambivalent about Bronowski today. ``He propounded a 19th-century view that did more harm than good -- ineluctable progress, individual great people. He took away from the community at large the credit that was due it.
``After all, there is no great man without antecedents, without his time. On the other hand, Bronowski was magnetic, and, however much I disagreed about his interpretation of history, I couldn't stop watching him think on television. I have sometimes been criticized for not thinking at all, because I seem to be so pat.''
Burke says his own work on this trilogy has not resulted in great intellectual revelations for him. ``I suppose I just ended up with my prejudices reinforced.''
He thinks for a moment, adjusts his glasses, then adds almost shyly: ``I hope it's not too pious for me to say that I hope that I am helping people develop a sense that certainty is blindness, that what is said today may be unsaid tomorrow by everyone everywhere. Every innovation modifies life. People simply mustn't be sure that there is only one right view of anything.''
Arthur Unger is television critic of The Christian Science Monitor.