Facts like these are compressed into Burke's pages like bubbles trapped in soda water, and like the bubbles, most of the facts are soon forgotten; it's the fizz we remember. Burke makes the history of science and technology stimulating in a way that produces appreciation, not just information; the leaps from radar to plastic wrap, or from the Wright brothers to ballpoint pens, are metaphors for understanding the way our own world works. Burke's gift to readers is an awareness that things around us are often less logical, and always more interconnected, than they might appear.
Burke argues that the new technologies of the Information Age are in fact rendering old ways of thinking, learning and using knowledge obsolete. What is becoming crucial is "the ability to pinball around through knowledge and make imaginative patterns." This ability, he suggests, may even serve to offer a new definition of intelligence, as we find ourselves adapting to accelerating rates of change on the ever-evolving information superhighway.
There is much truth in Burke's view of both history and the future, but his vision suffers from one glaring blind spot. The world he sees is a garden full of flowering technologies, where scientists sit like songbirds on the tree of knowledge, and all their sweet songs succeed in making life more pleasant. We get plastics without pollution, air-conditioning without an ozone hole, new drugs without side effects or resistant microbes. In a book so brilliantly focused on the interconnection of things, one would expect the author to notice that the fruits of knowledge sometimes are contaminated with pesticides. Burke's enthusiasm is what makes his writing so entertaining, but it is also the source of his limitation. "Thanks to the marvels of modern science," he writes, "the instant meal (with all its artificial flavoring and added nutritional value) is even better than the real thing." Is there a vegetable gardener reading this who could invite Mr. Burke down from the tree of knowledge and offer him a freshly picked salad for lunch?
Paul Trachtman writes about science and other topics from his home in New Mexico.