TWIN TRACKS: The Unexpected Origins of the Modern World

James Burke, Author
James Burke, Author . Simon & Schuster $24 (288p) ISBN 978-0-7432-2619-6
Reviewed on: 06/30/2003
Release date: 09/01/2003
Paperback - 276 pages - 978-0-7432-5810-4
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Burke is back with another volume of the surprising and frequently serendipitous connections among the seemingly unconnected people, events and discoveries that have shaped our modern world. His work, which by this point comprises a genre in itself (including such titles as The Knowledge Web and The Pinball Effect), meanders through the history of science, medicine and technology, playing an intellectual history version of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon. His motto: "Everything is connected." As in earlier books, Burke tweaks the form a bit, this time offering 25 pairs of parallel narratives; each pair starts with one "trigger event," then they diverge and reconverge at the end (hence the book's title). Want to know how the Boston Tea Party led to the development of contact lenses, or The Marriage of Figaro to the F-117A stealth fighter? Burke can tell you, following two simultaneous threads that careen off in wildly different directions from the "trigger event," then create the conditions for the end result. One could complain that his connections are sometimes tenuous at best, more synchronicity than cause-and-effect, but that would miss the point—the real fun is in Burke's dry wit and his sheer exuberance as he takes us through centuries of history in mere pages, only to pick a new starting point and do it all over again. B&w illus. (Sept. 8)

Forecast:London-based Burke writes a column for Scientific American and hosts Connections 3 on the Learning Channel, so he has a devoted following, and his books are always well received, as this should be.

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