James Burke (science historian)

James Burke (science historian)

James Burke (born 22 December 1936) is a Northern Irish science historian, author and television producer best known for his documentary television series called "Connections", focusing on the history of science and technology leavened with a sense of humour.


Born in Derry, Northern Ireland and educated at Maidstone Grammar School and Oxford University, he received his MA in Middle English from Jesus College. Later he moved to Italy where he lectured at universities in Bologna and Urbino as well as at English schools in that country.

During that time he was engaged in the creation of an English–Italian dictionary and the publication of an art encyclopedia. After a period of broadcasting work in 1966, he moved to London to join the BBC's Science and Features Department where he hosted and co-hosted a number of programmes. He was fascinated by the possibilities of television and the potential to educate and entertain by making programmes about science and technology. He also worked for a while as a teacher of English as a Foreign Language at the Regency Language School in Ramsgate.

Burke first made his name as a reporter on the popular and very long-running BBC science series, "Tomorrow's World". He was BBC television's science anchor and chief reporter on the Project Apollo missions, including being the main presenter on the BBC's coverage of the first moon landings in 1969. However, the prestige output of the BBC Features Department in the 1970s was the "epic 13-parter" dominated by one charismatic and scholarly figure, epitomised by Sir Kenneth Clark's "Civilisation" and Jacob Bronowski's "The Ascent of Man". Following in their footsteps, Burke produced his most important work: a highly acclaimed 10-part documentary series "Connections" (1978) that was first aired on the BBC, and subsequently on PBS channels in the United States.

The series traced paths of invention and discovery through their interrelationships in history, with each episode chronicling a particular path, usually in chronological order, and was a great success for Burke. It was followed by the 20-part "Connections2 " (1994) and the 10-part "Connections³" (1997) series. Later, it was shown in more than 50 countries and appeared in about 350 university and college curricula. Additionally, the book that followed the series was also a best seller on both sides of the Atlantic. Burke also produced a 10 part series "The Day The Universe Changed" in 1985 (revised in 1995).

Burke has also been a regular contributor for "Scientific American" and "Time" magazines and served as a consultant to the SETI project. He has received the Royal Television Society's silver and gold medals.


James Burke is the leading figure of the KnowledgeWeb Project. This is the digital incarnation of his books and television programmes, which allows the user to fly through history and create their own connective paths. It will eventually have immersive, inhabited virtual reality recreations of historical people and places.

In contrast with the end of "Connections", in which Burke worried that computing and communications would increasingly be in the hands of an expert elite, in the closing scenes of "The Day the Universe Changed" he instead suggested that a forthcoming revolution in communication and computer technology would allow people all over the world to exchange ideas and opinions instantaneously. Subsequent events seem to have proven him right. His views of the connected nature of history have also been substantiated by recent research in chaos/complexity/network theory. See for example complex systems and six degrees of separation.

Major television credits

Television series and major single documentaries made by James Burke:
*"The Burke Special" (1972–1976)
*"The End of the Beginning", marking the end of Project Apollo (1972)
*"Connections" (1978)
*"The Men who Walked on the Moon", 10th anniversary of Apollo 11 (1979)
*"The Other Side of the Moon", a more critical look at Apollo (1979)
*"The Real Thing", on various aspects of perception (1980)
*"The Neuron Suite" on the human brain (1982)
*"The Day the Universe Changed" (1985)
*"After the Warming" (1990), on the greenhouse effect
*"Masters of Illusion" (1993), on Renaissance painting
*"Connections 2" (1994) (sometimes written "Connections²")
*"Connections 3" (1997) (or "Connections³")
*"Stump the Scientist", in which an audience of children were invited to put questions to a resident panel of scientists in the hope of "stumping" them


*"Tomorrow's World I", (with Raymond Baxter) (BBC 1970) ISBN 978-0563101628
*"Tomorrow's World II", (with Raymond Baxter) (BBC 1973) ISBN 978-0563123620
*"Connections: Alternative History of Technology" (Time Warner International/Macmillan 1978) ISBN 978-0316116725
*"The Day the Universe Changed" (BBC 1985) ISBN 0-563-20192-4
*"Chances" (Virgin Books 1991) ISBN 978-1852273934
*"The Axemaker's Gift", (with Robert Ornstein), illustrated by Ted Dewan (Jeremy P Tarcher 1995) ISBN 978-0874778564
*"The Pinball Effect — How Renaissance Water Gardens Made the Carburettor Possible and Other Journeys Through Knowledge" (Little, Brown & Company 1996) ISBN 978-0316116107
*"The Knowledge Web" (Simon & Schuster 2001) ISBN 978-0684859354
*"Circles — Fifty Round Trips Through History Technology Science Culture" (Simon & Schuster 2003) ISBN 978-0743249768
*"Twin Tracks" (Simon & Schuster 2003) ISBN 978-0743226196
*"American Connections: The Founding Fathers. Networked" (Simon & Shuster 2007) ISBN 978-0743282260

Popular Culture

James Burke is mentioned in the lyrics of the Human League song "The Black Hit of Space," a 1980 sci-fi-tinged single about a hit song "sucking up the human race." The lyrics urge, "get James Burke on the case."

The BBC topical comedy series 'Not The Nine O'Clock News' included a sketch in which an actor imitating Burke delivered a passage of elaborately mischievous prose somewhat in his manner -- ending with the following: "So there we have it. The truth is, the theory is really very, very simple. And if it isn't, I change it so it is. Or do I?"

External links

* [http://www.k-web.org/ Burke's KnowledgeWeb Project]
* [http://blog.throwawayyourtv.com/2007/06/james-burke-connections-1-full-series.html James Burke Connections 1 - Video]
* [http://www.palmersguide.com/jamesburke/ James Burke Fan Companion] a semi-official site regarding James Burke's career, television programs and books. Includes a speaking schedule.
* [http://www.1-900-870-6235.com/BurkeMap.htm JamesBurkeMap] ; a visual representation of his latest book, K-Web project, speaking engagements, and previous work.
* [http://smithsonianassociates.org/programs/burke/burke.asp James Burke: The Knowledge Web; Voices From The Smithsonian Associates] - 1 hour audio lecture
* [news://alt.fan.james-burke Burke's fans newsgroup]
* [http://tv.groups.yahoo.com/group/connectionswithjamesburke/ Yahoo group for Burke's fans]
* [http://www.documentary-video.com/category.cfm?id=1 Documentary-Video] where "Connections 1," "2" and "3" are available for sale
*" [http://www.kcsm.org/tv/catalog/Reconnections/index.htm Re-Connections] " on Burke's corpus of work, as well as an introduction to his Knowledge Web project.
* [http://www.stranova.com/Podcasts/Stranova25.mp3 Stranova Interview with James Burke on "The Knowledge Web"] September 26, 2006.

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