ASSOCIATES (vol. 5, no. 1, July 1998) -

The Day The Universe Changed
James Burke
Boston : Little, Brown, 1995 rev. ed.
ISBN: 0-316-11704-8, $22.95 US

Reviewed by
Barbara Rocchi
Lending Services Supervisor
University of South Australia library
Whyalla Campus

This revised edition is actually the result of a popular television documentary series called "The Day the Universe Changed" based on the 1985 publication of the same name. The author, James Burke is a science graduate of Oxford University, who has since been writing and producing TV programs based on science and history.

The ten chapters cover the history of discovery and knowledge chronologically, beginning with ancient Greece (briefly) through to the twentieth century. The author seeks to define pivotal moments in history when scientific discoveries dramatically changed Western civilisation's understanding and knowledge of their world. His style is fairly informal, aimed at laymen, and occasionally humourous, but conveys clear descriptions of changing ideas and technology. The book is lavishly illustrated with diagrams, black and white and coloured photos (no doubt there were plenty of images available from the TV documentary).

Probably because of my interest in social and scientific history, I found this book fascinating. I read it from cover to cover and then ordered a copy for our library. I was able to pick out twelve pivotal events which I thought significantly changed and influenced our view of the world. They are:

1. The arrival into the Dark Ages of translations of Aristotle and other Greek and Roman authors. These had been preserved by Islam and translated from the Arabic into Latin. They brought Europe out of the Dark Ages into a knowledge based on logic and reason.

2. The Black Death (bubonic plague) in 1347 killed half of Europe's population in twenty years and from which it took over a century to recover.

3. Discovery of geometrical perspective in painting and architecture literally gave a new view of the world.

4. Columbus' discovery of the 'new world' America in 1492.

5. Advent of the Gutenberg printing press around 1450, destroyed an oral society and made printed knowledge available to all. It stimulated an increase in literacy.

6. Copernicus' revelation in 1514 that the sun was the centre of the Solar System, sparked such turmoil that he dared not print his theory until after his death in 1543. It stimulated a revision of the calendar from the Julian to the Gregorian.

7. The discovery of gunpowder (by Western civilisation) and manufacture of cannons gave new technologies to the army and new ways of waging war.

8. Isaac Newton's invention of calculus to better measure the orbits and motions of planets. Geometric calculations that once took 80 pages to prove a theorem, could now be done in 2 pages using calculus.

9. The invention of the steam engine which gave rise to the Industrial Revolution and caused a complete paradigm shift in society. A population and economy geared solely to agriculture moved to factories and cities. Life expectancy dropped to an average around 40 years in the early 1800's.

10. Medical advances, stimulated initially by the carnage of the French Revolution and then by the disgustingly unhygienic conditions of factories and cities. In short order discoveries included anaesthetics (ether and chloroform), bacteria/microbes (by Pasteur), antiseptics (by Lister) and the building of sewers and clean water sources.

11. Darwin's theory of evolution turned established religious ideas around.

12. The discovery of magnetism and electricity led to many inventions such as the telegraph, Morse Code, electric light, phonograph, radio, ticker tape, television and eventually to the splitting of the atom.

The author makes mention of Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle (1927) which basically states that subatomic particles can have either position as particles, or motion as waves, but never both at once. Thus if one is to observe subatomic particles, the actual act of observation itself (by shining a light on them, for example, therefore adding extra energy) changes their behaviour. Heisenberg observed that every description of reality contains some uncertainty, and the observer, in the act of observing, modifies the phenomenon. The universe is what you see it is at a given moment. Everyone's perception of reality is different and framed by their belief structure. (And you thought that Star Trek had made it all up!)

I found "The Day the Universe Changed" full of surprises, (did you know that the humble turnip caused a revolution in agriculture, when used over winter to feed stock that would previously have had to be killed through lack of food?) and an immensely interesting and thought-provoking book.

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