Why a 34 year old documentary series is still one of the best ever made…

Back in 1978, science historian James Burke put together one of the best documentaries ever made—Connections. Through a series of 10 episodes (later added to with Connections2 and Connections3, Burke traces how one discovery, hundreds (if not thousands) of years ago, led to a chain of events and subsequent discoveries that revolutionized the world, and brought us to where we are today—or rather were in 1978.

The concept of the series is fascinating for a history buff. But as a person with both an interest in history, and a history of science (since my degree many years ago was in Space and Communication Science), I found the series utterly absorbing, even a second time around. I had watched many of the episodes the years ago, but hadn’t seen the series end to end before. I recently watched the entire Series 1, and I am astonished at how relevant what he discussed still is today.

Whether it be how (and why) ancient societies developed technology to test gold’s purity, or water was used to power mills and looms, or how England’s need to survey Ireland led to television, each link in the chains demonstrated some simple science concept or experiment that taught me something. In fact, I think I learned more about science and engineering in these 10 episodes than I did in four years of university, studying it. I don’t say that entirely in jest, either. Had I watched these shows during high school, or even college, or had professors who spoke with the same kind of amazement and enthusiasm, and used the same demonstrative technique Burke does, I might have been able to put the theoretical concepts from my classes into perspective, and actually learned something that stuck. Not to say that my professors were bad, but in general, the method of learning through rote memorization does little for me. But give me a tangible application of a concept, and the light goes on in my brain.

When it comes time for my kids to start doing science projects, if I see they are struggling to find something interesting to do, I’m going to bring this show back out, and let them pick from any of a hundred mechanical devices to build that demonstrate a particular concept. I think they’ll learn far more from doing that than memorizing formulas. In fact, if I was a high school teacher today, I’d be showing these episodes to my students, and building entire curriculums around them. Of course, they’d have to get past the epic tan leisure suit and wide collars he wears in each episode, but once past that, I think the kids (and the adults) in the room would really learn something.

I highly recommend this series. You can get it either via NetFlix (unfortunately not available on Instant Watch yet) or via this site, which created a list of episodes available on YouTube. Go out and watch some of it. You’ll be glad you did.

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