James Burke seduced me into studying history by making me think I was learning about science.  The series The Day the Universe Changed explores influences of discoveries and shared knowledge on the perception of the Universe and man's place in it.

Burke continues in the slightly irreverent tradition as Connections, but he is more mature, a little less tongue in cheek.

Burke loves to be dramatic. He tells about the development of the airplane as the camera pulls back to reveal he is standing on a Concorde.  He travels to hundreds of locations in dozens of countries and uses a heap of BBC stock footage.   Here follows a summary of the flow of each episode.  -Bill Otto

The Day the Universe Changed

Episode Guide

(#1) It Started with the Greeks (#6) The Factory and Marketplace Revolution
(#2) Medieval Conflict: Faith and Reason (#7) Social Impacts of New Medical Knowledge
(#3) Scientific Imagination in the Renaissance (#8) Darwin's Revolution
(#4) Printing Transforms Knowledge (#9) The New Physics: Newton Revised
(#5) Science Revises the Heavens (#10) Changing Knowledge, Changing Reality

It Started with the Greeks (#1). Explains how the questioning, rational attitude of the ancient Greeks has continued through the centuries in the West and has led to constantly changing knowledge and discovery, thus creating conflict between these changes and inherently conservative institutions. Also discusses the thesis of the series that particularly important developments in the history of Western thought have produced corresponding changes in who we are.

  1. Each people defends its version of the truth.
  2. Some mysteries presented, how does something happing centuries ago fundamentally change our Universe.
  3. Asking questions centuries ago results in changes to our Universe.
  4. Ionians left Greece 3 millennia ago and decided to be practical.
  5. Taysley was behind it.
  6. Taking geometry from Egyptians, and applying the knowledge.
  7. This resulted in a rationalism.
  8. So, answers to questions asked in the past shape what we are today.
  9. steam power
  10. stellar cartography/coordinate systems
  11. We institutionalize knowledge so it must change us.
  12. We protect it with ritualism.
  13. We go further and make it law and have public administration.
  14. Buddism does the same thing with a roadblock to new knowledge.
  15. We institutionalize the process of changing in research laboratories.
  16. Think of the change a microchip can bring, such as,
  17. telecommuting. But what of the economy based on commuting?

Medieval Conflict: Faith and Reason (#2). Europe overruns Moorish Spain, discovering libraries, universities, optics, mechanics, and natural philosophy, as well as table manners and dessert. The rediscovery of classical knowledge leads to the founding of universities and the overthrow of Augustinian by Aritstotelian beliefs.
  1. Saint Augustine- the material world is unimportant
  2. Rise of monasteries and the Dark Ages
  3. Charlemagne's brief candle
  4. Carolingian miniscule writing
  5. more dark ages
  6. Emeris's glossing of law texts
  7. Moorish Spain and height of culture, knowledge and standard of living
  8. Cordova's mosque and libraries
  9. fall of Toledo to El Cid's mercenaries
  10. rediscovery of Greek knowledge
  11. Aristotle's logic
  12. logic and Church don't mix
  13. two truths - everyday and religious
  14. letting some light in
  15. study of optics
  16. Theodoric of Freiburg's experiments to explain the rainbow

Scientific Imagination in the Renaissance (#3). Shows the startling changes that grew out of the study of Arab optics. From the discovery of perspective geometry came new painting and architecture, the ability to measure at a distance and to map the world, and the confidence that allowed Columbus to cross the Atlantic. Above all the new knowledge led to a new individualism.

  1. fall of Byzantine Empire
  2. Chrisalorus's mission to the Pope to prevent fall of Constantinople
  3. teaching Greek classics to the Italians at Florence
  4. tour of Greece - Claudius Ptolemy
  5. Medici double entry bookkeeping
  6. study of Italian heritage
  7. desire to imitate Roman architecture
  8. need for mathematics
  9. Ptolemy's coordinates
  10. Idea that Japan might be other side of Atlantic
  11. Columbus's voyage to America

Printing Transforms Knowledge (#4). The medieval world which relied largely on memorized knowledge and the spoken word was transformed by Gutenberg's discovery of printing. This new knowledge is analysed and connections are drawn to subsequent revolutions in Western thought.

  1. old people's memories
  2. auditing
  3. memory theater
  4. traveling troubadours
  5. expensive parchment and abbreviated scribbles
  6. printing saves Gutenberg's financial hide
  7. printing indulgencies and corruptions in Church
  8. printing fuels protestant (Luther) movement
  9. coming of the book
  10. democratization of knowledge
  11. cross-indexing explodes knowledge

Science Revises the Heavens (#5). Deals with advances made during the Scientific Revolution, including Copernicus's explanation that the heavens do not revolve around the earth, Galileo's exploration of the acceleration of falling objects, and Newton's theories, and examines the bitter conflict that these ideas caused within the Catholic Church.

  1. Church summit in Trento, Italy
  2. talks drag on but end up with hard line - literal belief in Bible required
  3. need to get calendar straight for proper worship
  4. astronomer priest got enough information to see irregularities in motion
  5. perfect circular motion in heaven and straight line motion on earth
  6. ballistics were not straight lines
  7. Aristotle was wrong
  8. Copernicus's math trick - heliocentric solar system
  9. And cannon ball ballistics showed that straight-line motion was wrong.
  10. A unversal law of acceleration was discovered.
  11. Newton showed gravity was the same thing on earth and the planets
  12. Galileo's telescope indicates it was true and he dared to say so. The telescope that allowed you to see distant ships also revealed mountains on the moon, phases of Venus, andmoons around Jupiter.
  13. Catholic Church locked him up
  14. Halley's comet finally convinces the church that geocentric universe is wrong and that all of Kepler's math about orbits was right.

The Factory and Marketplace Revolution (#6). Describes the origins of the Industrial Revolution and the resulting growth of urbanization, the creation of the factory system and an industrial working class, and the exploitation of the planet.
  1. Sugar cane and slavery produced wealth for English in the Caribbean.
  2. Manor houses and servants for the wealthy were built on the same system of servitude
  3. Rotation of crops allowed them to raise livestock which they purchased with the slavery wealth
  4. Good weather brought in good harvests and the population grew.
  5. Paper money (a Dutch inovation) and credit really fueled trade and prosperity
  6. This lead to the Bank of England, borrowing from investors, and starting insurance camplnies to protect your investments
  7. Taxes on profits kept things rolling.
  8. Religions that value a profit.
  9. Abraham Darby and coal to fuel small scale industrialism.
  10. Banking was taken to the countryside to lend money to peasants who used the money to finance small businesses.
  11. They built roads and canals which lead to a market in distilled liquors.
  12. This lead to an understanding to heat and latent heat
  13. This lead to a steam engine that could run factories that produced luxury items sold in shops.
  14. The steam engine also powered the railways.
  15. Which lead to the mixing of the gene pool across the country.
  16. All this commerce led to standardization
  17. To keep all of this going, we need raw materials, metals and such, from places like Jamaica... that is until it runs out.
  18. Then what?


Social Impacts of New Medical Knowledge (#7). Looks at the rise of modern medicine and public health and their relationship to statistics which doctors have learned to apply to diseases, cures, and epidemics. Explains that as medicine became increasingly a science, patients increasingly became statistics.
  1. Modern medicine enables cities because it keeps the cities from dying out due to epidemics
  2. Franklin established Philadelphia with a great hospital
  3. Franklin influenced the same interest in medicine in France through pillow-talk.
  4. Revolution and war gave surgeons a lot of practice to advance medical care.
  5. Canabis wrote the book on what modern medical care should be, influenced by Franklin.
  6. Leibniz mathematically solved problems by breaking them down into infinitesimal parts. 
  7. Medicine became mathematics with enough patients to study
  8. The conditions in London lead to a cholera outbreak.
  9. Mathematics and statistics pointed the was to controlling the cholera.
  10. Identifying the water supply led to cleaning up the Thames.
  11. A sewer system saved London even though they did not know what cholera was
  12. Meanwhile, in Georgia, Crawford Williamson Long held ether sniffing parties.
  13. He discovered that it was useful during surgery
  14. But surgery was still dangerous until cleanliness and antibiotics were added.
  15. Lister added the carbolic acid.
  16. Robert Koch added modern bacteriology using a microscope and agar.
  17. He finally found the cholera bug.
  18. In 1892 the first public hygiene laboratory doing bacteriological testing was set up hin the hospital of the University of Pennsylvania.

Darwin's Revolution (#8). Reveals how Darwin's writings undermined the concept of an orderly, unchanging universe and with it the belief in the biblical theory of creation. Also considers how aspects of Darwinism were used to political and economic advantage to justify nazism, robber baron style capitalism, and communism.
  1. Linneus believes god is organized, so he sets about to show it by classifying plant species.
  2. The Swiss idea of teh great chain of being
  3. 18th century French zookeeper called Buffon: If all birds were separate creations, why one, common structure?
  4. An engineer called Smith, in 1796, was busy exploding his way across the English countryside, building canals for the Industrial Revolution,and finding the oddest things in the rubble. Fossil things.
  5. What that meant was, that things had changed during history, that God had made mistakes.
  6. Cuvier used compartive anatomy to reconstruct dinosaurs and that meant God had to have changed his mind. But, like Buffon, Cuvier couldn't go for that
  7. George Scrope, a pupil of Buckland, no less, found volcanoes and very old lava, making the earth older than the Bible said
  8. Lyell wrote a  book, “Principles of Geology”, about how wrong the Bible chronology had been
  9. Wallace realized that species were changing over time
  10. "Origin of the Species" published
  11. Social Darwinism and the Nazis
  12. Anything that might weaken the race: criminals, defectives, imbeciles, democrats, must be sterilised or shot. “Racial hygiene” it is called.
  13. This led to the free-enterprise approach in America
  14. And spawned Lenin's socialism in Russia.


The New Physics: Newton Revised (#9). Deals with the new era of scientific inquiry that started around 1800 with the study of the properties of electricity. Reviews advances in the study of magnetism and its relation to electricity, light, and subatomic particles. Also discusses the confusion between science and technology and the layman's essentially commonsense Newtonian view of the world while the scientific world is actually relative and uncertain.
  1. The Swiss - efficiency precision, organization.
  2. Newton noticed the universe ran like that, like a Swiss clock.
  3. Voltaire's battery makes electricity.
  4. Electric lights
  5. Electro-plating
  6. Maxwell and electro-magnetism
  7. Electric motors.
  8. Telegraph
  9. Radio waves
  10. Thomas Edison invented inventing 
  11. Michelson and Morley showed that there is no ether for electromagnetic waves.
  12. Mach thought any sense of motion was relative
  13. Thompson's CRT was affected by mysterious forces and light came in bits 
  14. Einstein puts it all together with the equivalence of waves and particles and abstracted Mach's relativity to a universal principal. 
  15. Heisenberg's uncertainty.

Changing Knowledge, Changing Reality (#10).Points out that today's truth will be superseded as our scientific knowledge changes and questions whether moving from one stage of knowledge to another is really progress. Poses the questions: Is knowledge itself only what we make it? Should we find room for tolerance of other cultures' views of knowledge?.
  1. Bruneleschi in Florence invents perspective drawing.
  2. A witch trial from 300 years ago makes no sense to use today because we do not share their knowledge of their world.
  3. Optical illusions demonstrate that you see what you a pre-conditioned to see from your knowledge of the world around you.
  4. An example of this sort of structure originated with Aristotle in Greece. Concentric spheres carrying the sun and moon and planets.
  5. Liebig analyzed plant residue to discover the minerals they needed which he then added to the soil to save Germany from starvation in the 18th century.
  6. Galileo pointed out that Aristotle had been wrong about why objects floated, and got put under house arrest by the church.
  7. Boyle escaped the same fate when he demonstrated a vacuum, because the Church of England took a different stand from the Roman Church.
  8. Piltdown Man was a scientific fact for 40 years before the fraud was discovered, because it fit with what had been expected to be found.
  9. The discovery of meteorites by French peasants in the 18th century was ignored because the church was in charge. But after the revolution that put the peasants in charge, it became a scientific fact.
  10. People design instruments to measure what they expect to find, so when they find it, their reasoning has come full circle.
  11. Everyone thought the continents were static until Wegener noticed how well Africa and South America fit. But he was ridiculed for 40 years because it wasn't what people expected to learn.
  12. Eventually continental drift became an established scientific fact.
  13. In its own way Bhuddism explains the world as completely as science, but inhibits scientific investigation.
  14. In spite of all the evidence showing that our knowledge of the universe has always been incomplete, we go on believing that we have the correct view today.

Interesting sites:

The James Burke Web Repository

CNET personalities - movers and shakers - James Burke

James Burke : About the Author

UnAuthorized James Burke


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 Last updated 8/7/97.