The Day The Universe Changed, by James Burke. New York: Little, Brown & Co. 360 pp. $27.50. There is a debate among some readers and television watchers as to which is the best medium for both entertainment and education. James Burke, in ``The Day The Universe Changed,'' attempts to use both media to their best advantage. The book is a companion to the PBS television series of the same name. Mankind is profoundly influenced by his view of himself in his universe, Burke tells us and then proceeds to give a number of graphic examples of how the concepts of the world influenced the search for truth, and how, when those views changed, new eras opened.
Take, for example, his chapter entitled ``Point of View.'' The right of individual expression is the initial subject, but soon we find some very interesting history. Burke claims that the black death, a disaster that wiped out half the population of Europe in the 14th century, and a new way of painting made possible the great democratic reforms that occurred 300 years later. With only half the work force left, survivors were desperately needed if Europe was to have the raw materials and food to rebuild. No longer bonded serfs, farms workers became valuable professionals who could demand a decent wage, and with their new status came political power that would have been unthinkable a generation before. Change reigned in the political as well as the physical realms. Institutions within the church and landed gentry were overthrown, and replaced with a new community - part totalitarian and part democratic.
The revolution in painting came through a semi-literate craftsman named Brunelleschi. He introduced a new realism to painting - perspective. Burke continues, ``What had been achieved was a revolution in the way people looked at the world, not just in terms of visual representation but from a philosophical point of view. Following the discovery of perspective geometry, the position of man in the cosmos altered.... Now at a stroke, the special relationship between God and every separate object was removed, to be replaced by direct human control over objects existing in the same, measurable space.''
Burke assails his readers and viewers with facts, history, and beautiful illustrations. The illustrations in the text are interesting and thought-provoking. The progress, or at least the changing scene, of mankind is spread across the text with amazing speed.
In his final chapter, Burke attempts to sum it all up. He states, ``The structure therefore sets the values, bestows meaning, determines the morals, ethics, aims, limitations, and purpose of life. It imposes on the external world the contemporary verison of reality. The answer to the question, `Which truth does science seek?' can only be, `The truth defined by the contemporary structure.''' This is perhaps an unsatisfying solution to the problem raised by the hundreds of years of history and many illustrations that fill the book, but the reader cannot but be impressed with the changes in man's view of his universe that have occurred.
Paul A. Robinson Jr. is a staff scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.