If we are to listen to James Burke, he is just a “television journalist” who writes “second rate books”, he is “no better or worse than most people” in predicting the future and is “far beyond his own head. date”. I don’t believe a word of it, of course.
It’s not for nothing that the 86-year-old broadcasting titan has been named a “favorite author” by Bill Gates, checked by The Human League in his 1980 song The Black Hit of Space (“Get James Burke on the case,” on them. sing) and described by The Washington Post as “one of the most interesting minds in the Western world”.
Burke hosted the BBC’s flagship science magazine program Tomorrow’s World (showcasing the video recorder and anti-shark swimming bag) before tackling the Apollo 11 Moon landing in 1969 – the Corporation’s first ever nightly broadcast. Then, in 1978, he went on to write and present Connections, which was sold to more than 50 countries and achieved the highest audience for a documentary in the history of the US PBS network.
It was during this series that he recorded “the best time in television history” as “the best time ever”.
James Burke on Connections where he discussed NASA’s launch with a scientific explanation
Explaining the connection between the invention of the thermos flask and space travel, he gave his piece to the camera: “If you release those two gases into a confined space with a hole at the other end of it and mix them like you do, and then, give them light, you will get … that.”
Burke then showed the distance – exactly seconds before NASA’s spacecraft took to the skies carrying Voyager 2. The sequence now goes viral at regular intervals, much to Burke’s dismay.
“Poor souls must be short of material,” he snorts on a video call from his home in southern France, 500 yards from the Italian border. Characteristically, he insists: “It was just a normal countdown. So all I had to do was talk for exactly 12 seconds, and that’s what I can do – what I’m paid to do.” When I point out that it’s too moderate, he furrows his eyebrows behind his trademark specs (much slimmer than in the 1960s) before correcting me: “No, no! I am not moderate. NASA is very precise. I knew the rocket would go dead in a split second, and it did.”
Forty-five years on from the first instalment, he is returning to our screens for a new series of Connections, not for the BBC – which, he says, has been forced by budget cuts to reduce documentary production – but global streamer, Curiosity . Stream.
Burke says the reason he wanted to do it is simple: “I got bored”, and he was asked. “Well, a couple of Americans approached me, in the middle of the show, saying ‘Do you want to do more TV? Or are you dead?’”
In each of the six episodes, he follows a dizzying chain of links to show how unrelated ideas connect over the centuries.
Unlike previous series, which ended in the present day, these programs end with predictions of future developments that will change the world. Frederick the Great’s coffee paves the way for designer genetics and the boring worms of a 19th century ship lead us to AI.
Allowing himself a rare moment of pride, Burke says: “I love the moment I discovered in episode five – that there was a great place to start with Napoleon’s toothpick. And how it was going to end up with predictive analytics [a quantum computer so powerful that it can predict the future]I thought it was a nice jump.”
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He says the earliest prediction will be the nanofabricator, a tiny machine that can build anything you want, molecule by molecule, for free. “The first simple version will come in about five years, but it will move quickly because nanofabricators will do it themselves.”
The supercomputer will take the longest to develop.
“But when he does, watch out! It’s the one that’s going to go as fast as we’re going to stay up to stay up.” He expects that within 10 years, AI will change 50 times faster than it is today. “And we have to catch him early, and, if necessary, deliberately limit what he can do.”
All of this fills me with more fear than hope. But Burke – more than twice my age – has nothing but lively hope. “Well, you have a choice – get scared, you jump off the bridge. I don’t intend to jump off the bridge.
“The thing about technology and science is that there is an answer if you can find it. And if you don’t find it, it’s your own fault for not looking hard enough.
“I really admire the huge thing between our ears. And we use a very, very small amount of it to do what we do now. I am positive about science and technology because I am positive about our ability to deal with it. As I say, if you don’t, jump off the bridge.”
The new Connections ditched the lush location filming (the first series was shot across 22 countries) in favor of a stationary Burke surrounded by CGI flashes. He says he was excited to immerse himself in the “new style”.
“There’s almost three times as much content in the same hour period as in the old days,” he explains.
“And I think people want that. The world lives at that pace now.”
James Burke now at 86
Born in Derry, Northern Ireland, the son of a labourer, Burke says he managed to secure a place at Maidstone Grammar School.
He was not “very good” at science and dreamed of becoming a singer before studying English at Oxford and teaching the language in Italy. You could say he synthesized both in his later life – his golden rule has always been to entertain first and inform second.
Before the moon landing in 1969, the BBC was planning its coverage when the news section asked, “Are you a geek?” Tomorrow’s World answered: “Yes, his name is Burke.” But Auntie didn’t seem to understand the seriousness of the events. Apollo 8 coverage in 1968 was cut short so as not to interrupt the Jackanory children’s tea show, before the commissioners realized their error and went right back.
Off air, Burke was told there was an intervention from a royal horseman, who called to say, “The Queen Mother wants to know what the f*** you think you’re doing”. With Apollo 11, during Neil Armstrong’s moon landing, Burke was much more focused on his silence than he knew what to say about the technical achievement, fearing that it would interfere with his speech “phase one little for a man”.
“There was no cue card, no script. And we had no idea what they were going to do next? Who did?” Everyone would not be able to relax when there was all the time, and no need to broadcast the pre-prepared astronaut feeds.
Although he thinks the missions were motivated by “propaganda reasons and Canadian desperation” and “did nothing for science”, Burke is still very happy with all the magic.
“To see the first pictures from the Moon with Armstrong and Aldrin bouncing around – there was nothing like it in my life,” he smiled. “To look up at the sky and see the Moon and know there were people standing on it. I mean, every night we’d look up and find gooseberries.” If man makes a giant leap to Mars in, say, the 2030s, Burke says it will be a shadow of the space fever of the sixties.
“It would be, ‘Here we go again.’ It’s just a different load of mud on Mars.” But he says: “If I am around, I will see,
One thing we can’t watch is Burke’s own presentation of the Moon Landing, because the BBC didn’t see fit to keep the tapes (rumor has it they were recorded at a horse race). “It didn’t matter, in a sense, because it was just me and Patrick Moore lost,” says Burke, humble as ever.
“NASA’s originals were not destroyed. But the BBC tapes themselves – well you know, good luck.” Is it really not bothered, I press. Burke smiled.
- Links are now available via Curiosity Stream
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