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To Be Taken In Small Doses

By Izzat Jarudi

Staff Writer

Written by James Burke

Published by Simon & Schuster


It’s a small world after all. And James Burke wants you to recognize that over and over again in Circles: 50 Round Trips through History, Technology, and Culture -- his latest collection of essays on the serendipitous nature of scientific progress from his “Connections” column in Scientific American. The theme of this collection is simple -- in the history of science, there have been numerous coincidences, scientists’ connections to figures and events outside the lab that reveal how inextricably linked technological progress and the history of humanity are.

Burke’s talent lies in uncovering the most interesting historical coincidences, finding a way to link them, and then assembling them all into a coherent as well as engaging narrative. In this compilation, appropriately named, he manages the task using a circular framework in each essay. Usually that means starting the story with a personal anecdote that just happens to connect to the first and last historical subjects of the essay. Otherwise, he explains, “these essays would have mirrored the serendipity I described, just going from anywhere to anywhere, with no reason for beginning where they start from, or ending where they go to.”

Unfortunately, the circular structure doesn’t really solve that problem. It’s amusing to read one of Burke’s articles every month or so after perusing the more substantive articles earlier in the magazine, but reading them in groups of two or more becomes irritating. You start to notice how often he forces coincidences into the story, undermining any point the essay has. Moreover, it becomes painfully apparent how trivial the “connections” generally are.

Equally painful to read is Burke’s style, chiefly composed of obnoxious clichÉs, puns, and punned clichÉs. In his apparent haste to chronicle crucial coincidences, Burke often avoids complete sentences and instead inserts anything he wants to add, usually an unsuccessful attempt at wit, within the pairs of parentheses that saturate his essays. Obviously, these things help to make a single article light and dynamic. But, after reading a few essays in succession, the combination of trite themes, historical trivia, and fragmented prose muddle any purpose to Burke’s book other than eliciting from his readers my favorite platitude: what a small world, huh?