Review of ‘The Pinball Effect’

The Pinball Effect
James Burke
Little, Brown

A medical researcher once told me that the progress of science and discovery may appear to advance in logical steps, but it's actually more whimsical, driven by what she called the "Look at that!" phenomenon: "Scientists may work on a problem for years," she said, "and then something we never noticed before suddenly catches our eye and we say, 'Look at that!' and we begin to investigate it."

It would be hard to find a more whimsical history of science and technology than The Pinball Effect by James Burke, host of the popular Connections television programs. Through his show, Burke has been doing for technology what Joseph Campell once did for myth, making it a new branch of popular culture. In Burke's view, the factors that lead to discoveries and inventions are so interconnected, unpredictable and often accidental that their history is more like the path of a pinball caroming about its table than a linear chain of events.

And he invites us to read this history with a "Look at that!" attitude, jumping from page to page, chapter to chapter, as our interest is caught, following marginal notes that indicate where to pick up the many different threads with which each story is woven. There are, Burke notes, at least 447 different ways to read this book. (Internet users, accustomed to jumping among Web pages through "hyperlinks," will be at home between the covers of this book.)

But Burke can be read straight through without missing the vagaries of history, for he seems to abhor a linear thought the way nature abhors a vacuum. We follow Burke as he traces the evolution of sign language from early Christian monasteries in the tenth century through the founding of a French school for the deaf in the 1750s. The saga continues with a visit in 1815 by the American Thomas Gallaudet. He returned home, married a deaf woman and had a son who directed the school for the deaf that eventually became Gallaudet College in Washington, D.C.--endowed with a house and two acres by a Washington lawyer, Amos Kendall. Kendall later became business manager for Samuel Morse, whose wife was deaf and who had thought of the Morse code by tapping messages on her hand.

This innovation, in turn, made the telegraph possible, during which time a controversy raged over whether it was better to teach the deaf with sign language or voice training. One advocate of voice training was an immigrant Scottish elocution teacher named Bell, whose wife was also deaf. Their son, Alexander Graham Bell, later used a mechanical device for turning speech sounds into graphic squiggles, designed to help deaf speakers "see" their sounds. That was, in fact, how he came up with the idea for his invention of the telephone. Burke makes the art of reading a form of broken field running, an exercise that seems to require quick reflexes and eyes that see in all directions.

Burke's path is as likely to lead backward as forward in time, across continents and cultures, in and out of social history as well as science and technology. And always, we find, there are some unexpected and surprising twists and turns along the way. We owe the discovery of vitamins, for example, to the food shortages in England at the outbreak of World War I, when wheat supplies from America were cut off by German submarines.

The scientist in charge of investigating the basic necessary diet under rationing was Frederick Gowland Hopkins. Up to that moment, Burke explains, Hopkins' career as a chemist "had been highlighted by his work on wing pigmentation in the Brimstone butterfly." Furthermore, we learn, "since a key element in this [pigmentation] process was the action of uric acid, Hopkins had become an expert in urine chemistry, from which he had developed an interest in the relationship between the constituents of urine and those of diet." It was Hopkins' research on diet and rat urine that led, however circuitous the route might seem, to the discovery of vitamins.

One might not expect to see a connection between butterfly pigments and vitamins, but it is Burke's genius to point out such hidden links. One of my favorites is the surprising link that developed between soap making and the Impressionist painters. A young French chemist, M. E. Chevreul, who discovered how soap works, also discovered that dyes adhere to cloth in much the same way that soap coats particles of dirt. As director of dyeing at a Paris tapestry factory, he also discovered that the strength of pigmentation in dyes was less critical than the juxtaposition of colors in creating a brilliant effect on the eye. He developed a color wheel for dyers that influenced the early Impressionists: "Painters like Seurat, Signac and Pissarro used Chevreul's new law of contrast in their work. They placed spots of different colors next to each other, to create the impression of a third color."

Like soap and Impressionism, the connections Burke makes seem as unexpected now as they were unforeseen at the time. No one could have known that the invention of gaslight would reduce the destruction of American forests by loggers, who were overcutting woodland to provide railroad ties for the rapidly expanding railroads. (The by-products of coal-gas production included a tar that could be distilled into creosote, which made railroad ties last longer and reduced the demand for timber.)

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.

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