For much of his career, science historian James Burke has been creating documentaries and writing books aimed at helping us to make better sense of the enormous amount of information that he predicted would one day be at our fingertips.
In Connections, he offered an “alternate view of history” in which great insights took place because of anomalies and mistakes, because people were pursuing one thing, but it lead somewhere surprising or was combined with some other object or idea they could never have imagined by themselves. Innovation took place in the spaces between disciplines, when people outside of intellectual and professional silos, unrestrained by categorical and linear views, synthesized the work of people still trapped in those institutions, who, because of those institutions, had no idea what each other was up to and therefore couldn’t predict the trajectory of even their own disciplines, much less history itself.
In The Day the Universe Changed, Burke explored the sequential impact of discovery, innovation, and invention on how people defined reality itself. “You are what we know,” he wrote “and when the body of knowledge changes, so do we.” In this view of change, knowledge is invented as much as it is discovered, and new ideas “nibble at the edges” of common knowledge until values considered permanent and fixed fade into antiquity just like any other obsolete tool. Burke said that our system of knowledge and discovery has never been able, until recently, to handle more than one or two ways of seeing things at a time. In response we have long demanded conformity with the dominant worldview or with similarly homogenous ideological binaries.
My favorite line from the book has to do with imagining a group of scientists who live in a society that believes the universe is made of omelettes and goes about designing instruments to detect traces of interstellar egg residue. When they observe evidence of galaxies and black holes, to them it all just seems like noise. Their model of nature cannot yet accommodate what they are seeing, so they don’t see it. “All that can accurately be said about a man who thinks he is a poached egg,” joked Burke, “is that he is in the minority.”
You may have noticed that when we browse the news or type into Google we tend to seek confirmation more than we do information. We predict our current model will remain untarnished. When we want to make sense of something, we tend to develop a hypothesis just like any scientist would, but when we check to see if we are correct, we often stop once we find confirmation of our hunches or feel as though we understand. Without training, we avoid epiphany by avoiding the null hypothesis and the disconfirmation it threatens should it turn out to be valid.
Since the 1970s, Burke has predicted we would need better tools than just search alone if we were to break out of this way of thinking. His new app aims to do that by searching Wikipedia “connectively” and producing something the normal internet searches often do not – surprises, anomalies, and unexpected results.
In the 1990s, Burke began working on a Knowledge Web, a mostly invite-only, experimental interactive media project built on the same principles as his approach to the history of science, innovation, and change. The K-Web allows users to visualize and navigate information outside of the way it is presented in books or libraries, and to move between nodes in a dense, interconnected sprawl, like neurons wired together into tethered constellations of association and influence. Today it features 2,800 people linked 30,000 ways, but the Connections app would apply the tools developed in that project to the megastructure of Wikipedia, adding five million new nodes with a yet-to-be-estimated number of new links between them.
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