Burke encourages audiences to think in a broader context

The Media School Report • Feb. 17, 2009

By Sara Amato 

Science historian James Burke described the "future of the future" during his talk Monday night at the Buskirk-Chumley Theater. (Jeremy Hogan)
Science historian James Burke described the “future of the future” during his talk Monday night at the Buskirk-Chumley Theater. (Jeremy Hogan)

For the renaissance person, it’s time to start using the “killer app” that everyone has: the brain.

Science historian, television producer and author James Burke spoke to a crowded Buskirk-Chumley Theater on Monday night about “the future of the future,” encouraging people to think outside today’s technology.

“The brain seems naturally configured for change … to have new ideas,” he said, describing human cognitive power as something no technology has been able to match.

Burke, the first speaker of the spring School of Journalism Speaker Series, has produced, directed, written and hosted television series such as Connections on BBC, PBS, Discovery and The Learning Channel. Much of his work looks at how technology and science interact with culture.

As he talked about innovators and developments from Descartes to the iron stirrup that allowed French soldiers on horseback to conquer England, he described connections, some seemingly insignificant, that led to dramatic change.

As in his television work, Burke incorporated humor to keep his audience engaged while describing scientific ideas. One of his “connections” took the audience through a series of advancements in the 17th century to arrive at the invention of toilet paper, a roll of which he pulled out from behind the podium to display.

Burke said while this reductionist way of thinking – simplifying the complex nature of things – has led to technological advances in society, people need to adapt to change and start thinking in a broader context.

Enter the “killer app.” The brain has hundreds of billons of neurons that contact dendrites, which means that a “thought or signal goes through a complex system with more connections than the known atoms in the universe.”

Burke presented his Knowledge Web program to show how information is linked. Making such connections is critical to understanding concepts,  he said. (Photo by Jeremy Hogan)
Burke presented his Knowledge Web program to show how information is linked. Making such connections is critical to understanding concepts, he said. (Photo by Jeremy Hogan)

Using this webbed theory – that there are constant connections – Burke showed the audience his current project, Knowledge Web. A system that he created, Knowledge Web will allow the user to see the many connections, much like the ones made in the brain to transmit thoughts between seemingly unrelated topics. The user may understand the context and relationships instead of viewing a topic as an isolated subject.

Projecting the computer program onto the theater screen, Burke demonstrated by starting with Mozart and, within 10 connections, linking the composer to the man who created the helicopter.

Burke’s Knowledge Web is aimed at high school students, and he used this population to further describe the brain’s superior potential. He explained that the average high school student has only 12,500 words in his or her lexicon. If that’s all a student is actually accessing, he said, it would take about 12.5 seconds to understand each word that is being said — but it doesn’t.

“So what are you doing?” he asked. “You’re running simultaneous connective scenarios ahead of me, pairing up syntax, grammar, to power up all the probable things I’m going to say next. … So what that means is you’re all giving this talk before I am and any other talk I might’ve given and anything anyone might say this evening. One wonders why you came.”

This way of looking for connections, whether facilitated by the brain or computer-generated linking programs, may rely on new renaissance people, Burke said. He described the renaissance men of long ago as those who “knew everything there was to know.”

But new renaissance people will need to know how to find information, how to organize it and see the relationships, the cause and effect. These new renaissance people are journalists, he said.

“Getting to this point,” Burke said, “it will not be a smooth ride.”

Freshman journalism major Emily Nolan, who is looking to focus in advertising, said Burke’s way of thinking about innovative technology was interesting. IU sophomore Teal Prange agreed.

“He was really confident, very sure, about what was going to be,” Prange said.

But at the end of Burke’s lecture, it all came back to the brain.

“The place where the innovative revolution starts may no longer be great city centers or industrial laboratories or universities,” Burke said. “It may start in the massively complex engine between people’s ears.”