Connections was an amazing 1978 documentary television series and book created, written and presented by science historian James Burke. Today we continue our look at the series with Episode #2 – “Death in the Morning.”
From the introduction:
“I would say it was a pretty safe bet, that the one magic wish most people would like to be granted would be to be able to see into the future. Think what it would mean. And backing the right horse! But we can’t. We have to guess about tomorrow and we have to act on that guess, and it’s never been any different. And that’s why following the trail from the past up to the emergence of the modern technology that surrounds us in our daily lives, and affects our lives, is rather like a detective story. Because, at no time in the past, did anybody have anything to do with the business of inventing or changing things, ever know what the full effect of his actions would be. He just went ahead and did what he did for his own reasons, like we do. That’s how change comes about. And it’s like a detective story because if you follow the trail from the past up to a modern man-made object, the story is full of sudden twists and false clues and guesswork, and you never know where the story is heading until the very last minute.”
“Death in the Morning” examines the standardization of precious metal with the touchstone in the ancient world. This innovation stimulated trade from Greece to Persia, ultimately causing the construction of a huge commercial center and library at Alexandria which included Ptolemy’s star tables. This wealth of astronomical knowledge aided navigators during the age of discovery 14 centuries later following the introduction of lateen sails and sternpost rudders. Mariners discovered that the compass’s magnetized needle did not actually point directly north. Investigations into the nature of magnetism by Gilbert led to the discovery of electricity by way of the sulphur ball of von Guericke. Further interest in atmospheric electricity at the Ben Nevis weather station led to Wilson’s cloud chamber which in turn allowed development of both Watson-Watt’s radar and (by way of Rutherford’s insights) nuclear weaponry.