The Day the Universe Changed

Recently I had a moment of whiplash when I saw something that I held near and dear and also realized that sometimes things that are relatively old can be completely new, relevant and have something to say... again!

In my case I ran into an old BBC series on the history of science and knowledge from the mid-1980's hosted by James Burke called The Day the Universe Changed. Burke was the BBC's top science guy for many years - he had covered the moon landings for the BBC and was considered a first rate explainer of all things tough to wrap your head around. He was all of that - the BBC got that very right - but he was also so much more, His knowledge of the history of science was, and is, nothing short of extraordinary. I discovered the series as a single man living in Manhattan when it was rerun on The Learning Channel in the early 1990's (which at that time was actually all about providing programming that lived up to its name). At that point the series was probably about 6 to 8 years old - so not terribly out of date. Burke was absolutely captivating. I couldn't get enough of his shows and eventually recorded them via VCR tape (as one did in the time of stone knives and bearskin), so I could re-watch them and really get a feel for the material which was sometimes dense. Not since I was a kid when Carl Sagan had me totally knockered with Cosmos had I felt this strong about anything on television.

Burke had one main thesis for the entire show: that we are what we know... and that when the body of knowledge changes... so do we! The series then goes on to explain how, often by accident, great discoveries, advancements and developments that changed the world (the printing press, sanitation and public health, geometry in its applied sense, evolution, relativity) caused us to regard the world differently and eventually behave differently as a result. Rather than look down on previous generations as being too dumb to know better, Burke argues that they're intelligence was fine, but... they had to deal with the body of knowledge they had and that we wouldn't have done any better in similar circumstances! Shortly after postulating this in the first episode he'll take you all the way back to the Ionian Greeks and Thales of Miletus - arguably the father of science and philosophy who demanded that we ask questions... about everything! And without religious taboos! If you want to check it out (and you really should do so) you can see it right here.

Look, the entire series is wonderful - you'll be blown away, I think, by the fact that the ideas hold up so well - in fact some of them hold up even better than Burke could have imagined! For instance at the beginning of episode two, Burke is driving through the Tunisian desert - there’s nothing around for many miles when he encounters a traffic light right there in the middle of the desert and... he stops for the red light. Why? I mean, what’s the point when there’s nobody there? And Burke explains that it’s not because he’s been brainwashed or had his rights taken away, it’s because he’s part of society - there’s a social contract - with rules. And because he follows the rules he has a moral right to expect the good things that come from being a member of any society. Those are important and relevant ideas right now. Following the rules is, in essence, siding with civilization. Not doing so, which we’ve done before and was a decision that was advocated by a certain Carthaginian after the sack of Rome, actually helped lead to the Middle Ages at one point, and is a similarly bad decision now. So, what you do at the traffic light... matters.

I think it's fair to say that many today reject the social contract because they don't believe that the people offering the contract... are fair brokers... about anything! They're trying to make an essentially immoral and unethical act - the rejection of society - an ethical/moral choice. On the short list of the unsustainable... this has to be a killer of an idea! You can't possibly make it work... It doesn't stand up to scrutiny... but those offering it could care less. This is misdirection designed to get the credulous... angry. And it's worked. But the actual idea? No matter how hard you try to shoehorn that huey through the grinders of logic it will never make it through.

So, in these days in which we try to make sense of what we've just been through in the last four years and how people can believe the patently crazy, it might be a good idea to go back and relive how we got to be logical in the first place, because those arguments - even if made for mid-80's British TV - still are telling us some things and might help us find our rational feet again!

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