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The Day the Universe Changed by James Burke

The Day the Universe Changed (1985)

by James Burke

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The narrative seems overwrought, and the thesis unclear. But the illustrations are lovely and the binding excellent.

Detailed Review:

The Way We Are
Apparently, some acquaintance of Wittgenstein once asserted that the mediaeval Europeans must have been really stupid that they couldn't look up at the sky and realize that the earth moves around the sun. Wittgenstein replied, "I wonder what it would look like if the sun _had_ been circling the earth." His point was that it would have looked just the same. This seems to me wrong all around. First, we know that various ancient Greek philosophers speculated that the earth moved around the sun. It seems that they recognized that there was insufficient evidence to prefer the heliocentric to the earth centric hypothesis. That the earth-centric won out for about 1000 years or so, was probably due to religious reasons. Second, it is hard to tell what's going on in the sky, because there is a lot going on. The ancient Greeks were precise enough, and kept good enough records, to detect the third apparent motion of the heavens, "the precession of the equinoxes", now understood to be caused by a wobble of the earth's rotational axis. But that was a really impressive accomplishment and required good record keeping over hundreds of years. Third, with a good telescope, you can find evidence that supports the heliocentric over the earth-centred, for example, Galileo's study of the phases of Venus, which make the most sense if both Venus and the earth are going around the sun. So, even standing on the earth, cleverness and a primitive telescope will help you to find evidence to favor the earth-centered hypothesis.

There is one point: What we know, or think we know, about the universe determines how we think about most things. This is probably true.

There is also the point that modern societies use rituals derived from the past. One is the traditional wedding. This book was written in 1985. Nowadays, wedding ceremonies vary a lot, as people try to construct new ones that are somehow more acceptable to them. I guess this is a sign that the archaic symbolism of marriage, as described by Burke, has taken a few hits.

The performers of rituals usually belong to some organization; weddings and various churches go together for example.

The courts in England are a good example of anachronistic ritual. But from the point of view of someone like me, there is a virtual machine, the courts, and a program that is run in it, the trial of a case. The program may be buggy, and the virtual machine may also be at fault. For me, ritual is irritating rather than reassuring.

He mentions banks in this context as well. I dunno about their rituals, and they are not reassuring.

Formal education is another ritual-infused institution, according to him. Do not get me started on this one.

We have research universities, supposed to induce change, by discovering new things. I think this is true.

Some societies have used their social institutions to try to prevent change. A great example is that of ancient Egypt, which managed to not change its customs all that much, in spite of a few invasions and times of civil war and chaos.

Burke attributes all this focus on change to the Ionian Greeks. Unlike the Egyptians and Sumerians, who depended on the regularity of the rivers that governed their lives, the Ionian Greeks were forced to sail the Mediterranean, trading and coping with their unreliable agriculture. The difference in their views of their gods is also said to have had an effect. I'm not so sure, the Egyptians took a madly inconsistent view of their gods, who seem to have been just as erratic as Greek gods, but often animal-headed.

The need to sail about would have stimulated the Greeks interest in geometry. The interest in geometry would have stimulated the Greek interest in logic. The Greek fascination with geometry would have supported Plato's notion of ideal forms, which is quite helpful in geometry but not so useful in much other math or the sciences.

The book intends to show how changing views of our world and universe changed the cultures that held these views.

It has a really overwrought caption on a photograph of the Parthenon: The perfect physical manifestation of the union of logic and geometry is to be found in Greek architecture. "perfect" should not be used here.
  themulhern | Jan 27, 2019 |
When James Burke's new series started on PBS, I had been back in school for a while. My first semester back, I took a course called the "History of Science to 1600," purely on speculation. I had always loved both science and history, and I had become an avowed medievalist during my long absence from the halls of academe, so ... sure! It sounds interesting.

Suddenly, here on my television was the Connections man, James Burke himself, talking about my newest love. Oh, he didn't call it "history of science," because if he had he would have never gotten more than a handful of people to watch. But he was talking about things I'd learned about in my classes.

This would have been a fascinating program even if I hadn't studied the subject. Burke always had a way of taking the complex and dumbing it down just enough to let everyone feel brilliant when they comprehended what he was talking about. At the same time, he kept his topics well-enough written that those of us who knew something about it interesting.

The Day the Universe Changed has a one-word central theme: "Epistemology," the study of how we know what we know. It isn't so much about the hows and whys of our knowledge as it is what we did about it before, during and after we figured it out. This is exciting stuff, at least it can be. When we understand how we learn, it's easier not only to apply both what we've learned but also how to build on it to learn more. [I know, I've just gotten kind of confusing, haven't I?]

In any case, if you can find a copy of either this book or the series itself, I think it's worth revisiting. You might find out that learning, in and of itself, is rewarding and fascinating work. And, then, you might go on to discoveries much great than you ever thought existed. ( )
  bfgar | May 10, 2014 |
This book is much more detailed than Connections. I recall not really caring that much for the series on PBS but the book is better. Connections is a superior TV series, The Day the Universe Changed is a superior book. It doesn't jump around to wildly separate areas and stories the way Connections did, which is why the show was good. After a segment on the development of vacuum pumps in an old lab in England, Mr Burke would say, 'And it culminates here...", dramatic pause, and then he would pop up in some sub-tropical forest like in a Monty Python sketch and continue, "In Florida, where a doctor invented the modern air conditioner." Great TV, ok in book form. The DtUC is much less jumpy and follows the developments of several major scientific discoveries that totally altered the world. Like electromagnetism or moveable type printing or Darwinism. Quite an informative book with decent coverage of several layers of developments in the history of science, I really enjoyed it. ( )
  DirtPriest | Sep 10, 2010 |
I usually find this sort of book highly interesting, sadly though that was not the case here. I remember the PBS series as coming up somewhat short of Burke's earlier Connections series as well. If you want to read about the history of science I highly recommend A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson, it's more interesting and more readable. ( )
  5hrdrive | Jul 21, 2010 |
If you are not necessarily a fan of history or technology or sociology and you find reading any or all of those types of books hard then read this book.
James Burke has an amazing writing and presenting style (from the associated BBC series of the same name) that finds a seemingly innocuous invention and links it into revolutionary changes in how civilization works. For the trivia minded, there are lots of little jems like "where does the phrase 'being in the lime-lite' come from". ( )
  Gord.Barker | Apr 9, 2010 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0316117048, Paperback)

In The Day the Universe Changed, James Burke examines eight periods in history when our view of the world shifted dramatically: in the eleventh century, when extraordinary discoveries were made by Spanish crusaders; in fourteenth-century Florence, where perspective in painting emerged; in the fifteenth century, when the advent of the printing press shook the foundations of an oral society; in the sixteenth century, when gunnery developments triggered the birth of modern science; in the early eighteenth century, when hot English summers brought on the Industrial Revolution; in the battlefield surgery stations of the French revolutionary armies, where people first became statistics; in the nineteenth century, when the discovery of dinosaur fossils led to the theory of evolution; and in the 1820s, when electrical experiments heralded the end of scientific certainty. Based on the popular television documentary series, The Day the Universe Changed is a bestselling history that challenges the reader to decide whether there is absolute knowledge to discover - or whether the universe is "ultimately what we say it is."

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:10:51 -0400)

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Examines the course of man's beliefs from the Middle Ages to today, focusing on the critical periods in history when the ideas and institutions that have transformed man's understanding of the world were born.

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