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Science historian James Burke's K-web connects the unconnected

Science historian James Burke's Knowledge Web is an online database that allows users to explore the history and creation of ideas, connecting seemingly unrelated events, showing that all knowledge is somehow interrelated. (Photo: Courtesy James Burke)

What do Normans riding in stirrups, Evangelista Torricelli's vacuum, and Alexander Graham Bell's telephone have in common? Ask science historian James Burke and he'll take you on a fascinating journey spanning the centuries that shows how the development of military technology helped develop modern day telecommunications.

Since the 1970s Burke has astounded and entertained audiences with his unique perspective on innovation via his TV series "Connections." In each episode he examines a particular event in history and traces the path of that event through a series of seemingly unrelated events to a fundamental and essential aspect of our modern world.

Today Burke is taking this view of technology, science, and social change digital. He's creating a searchable database called the Knowledge Web -- "an expedition in time, space, and technology to map the interior landscape of human thought and experience."

AAAS MemberCentral had the opportunity to talk with Burke about his latest project. Here are his comments.

AAASMC: What is the Knowledge Web suppose to do?
Science historian, Knowledge Web founder James Burke: The prime aim of the Knowledge-Web, or K-web for short, is to encourage students to take journeys through space and time to (hopefully) discover unexpected and cross-disciplinary connections.  A typical short journey through the K-web might include:

Mozart (plagiarized) Beaumarchais (financed) Jefferson (admired) Beccaria (believer in) phrenology (influenced) Follen (jailed by) ETA Hoffman (role-model for) EA Poe (inspired) Rachmaninoff (bankrolled) Sikorsky (built) helicopter. 

Taking such journeys helps the student recognize that no subject exists in isolation, and that all knowledge is somehow interrelated, and makes it easier to see the relevance of academic study to daily life.  Most important of all it is hoped that use of the K-web will stimulate the realization that in the way we are all connected, no individual is irrelevant.

AAASMC: Describe how K-web works:
: It is a dynamic, interactive construct made up of interconnected nodes. Each node represents a person or artifact or idea, or event in history. Nodes are split about equally between the humanities and the sciences. 

In its present, very early iteration, the K-web contains about 2,400 nodes, each connected to other nodes that have relevance to it.  Relevant nodes may be:  key friends, colleagues, teachers, students, role models, family members, collaborators, detractors, artifacts, events, etc.  The present 2,400 nodes are thus interconnected in a total of around 30,000 ways.

The main K-web graphic representation looks rather like a spiderweb, with the selected node at the center and connecting filaments radiating out to 'connectees.'  These in turn are clustered around by different color-coded, smaller-scale secondary connections.  Mousing over a node provides a pop-up one-line descriptor (e.g. 'German physicist').  Mousing over a connecting filament produces a pop-up link identifier (e.g. 'taught by,' colleague of,' etc.).

Double-clicking on a node-name produces a 1,000-word biographical text, which includes text hyperlinks to connected nodes.  Clicking on the hyperlink takes the user to that node's text and web.  Texts also include vital stats and hyperlinks to graphic representations of relevant locations and timelines, as well as to visual (stills and video) and audio materials (where relevant). Planned are interactive audiovisual data (so that a user can, say, interact with a virtual representation of the subject).

The K-web interface is not yet finalized (the project urgently needs design help!) but will include:

  • Nodes initially appear on a graphic of nested translucent spheres, each representing a century (modern world, on outer sphere, carrying modern-world artifacts, ideas, events, etc.  These nodes may also act as 'entry gateways'), and each sphere-surface carrying the spiderweb of nodes relevant to that century.  Once a node is selected, the graphic switches from nested spheres to the two-dimensional spiderweb format.
  • Nodes can be accessed at random from the spiderweb, or searching by name, keyword, nationality, language, location, date, general field, discipline, major work, education, etc. using drop-down menus or a taxonomy tree.
  • Predetermined ten-jump 'Mystery Tour' journeys can be chosen.
  • Journeys can be recorded and re-run if required; or e-mailed.  There is a help avatar (me).

It is hoped that even the present, limited iteration contains enough potential journeys to exhaust the requirements of a full class of students for a semester.

AAASMC: Does the architectural design of K-web suggest a collective consciousness?
: Throughout history to some extent there have been occasions when the same environmental problem (such as drought) has led unconnected (hunter-gather) communities to develop the same solution (agriculture).  But I see this rather as an example of the way in which our brains are similarly wired so that they analyze similar problems and see similar solutions. 

In more recent times, as various means of communication have been developed (and especially today's Internet), it has become easier to be aware of what people are thinking and doing, even on a global scale.   

However, if there is, indeed, a 'collective consciousness,' I see it mediated by technology.  It is this technology-facilitated 'connectedness' which the K-web seeks to emulate, so as to give users practice in developing essential new 'skills of interdependence' for their own (and, it is to be hoped, for the collective) good. 

AAASMC: Might the K-web reveal how a few well written ideas, properly communicated, can shake the foundation of institutions?
: I suppose a few well-chosen ideas, well written and properly communicated, have always shaken institutions throughout history.  Galileo's remark about the moons of Jupiter circling the planet ('eppur si muove') questioned the Catholic church's entire cosmology; news of the subatomic tracks seen in CTR Wilson's cloud chamber upturned physics; Fibonacci's document on double-entry bookkeeping revolutionized banking at a stroke; Martin Luther King's 'I have a dream' shook American society to its foundations.  

But the idea that 'great thoughts' bring great change may be primarily a product of our millennial culture of scarcity,  in which literate, informed people were a tiny minority, where innovation was rare and its effects slow, where might was right, and where only a very few could access the tools with which to bring change.  As a result we came to refer to the self-expression of those 'few-with-access' individuals as 'genius.'  But given the same access, others might well have equalled or surpassed them. 

Technology is now beginning to give such access to all, and, thanks to the potential of nanotechnology, we may stand on the threshold of a new era of material and intellectual abundance.  Every healthy brain on the planet will have soon the means globally to disseminate its thoughts.  

Old-fashioned reductionists may sneer, but the coming drivers of change may no longer be the specialists, but rather the generalists, able to identify and map trends in research and discovery across all disciplines, and to see ways in which cross-pollination of ideas will bring ever faster rates of discovery and innovation.  The first generation of such generalists may receive their first, school-years experience of what lies ahead of them from primitive systems like the K-web.

fAAASMC: Should the Nobel Prize in science still be going to one person in an era of interconnectedness?
Nobel should go ahead with what it does: recognizing great efforts and insights.   Too much nonsense is talked about interconnectivity, as if we could do away, tomorrow, with the nuts and bolts of common- or-garden scientific hard work and discovery. We're still a long way from turning science entirely over to software and machines. 

However, I wonder if it might not be time to establish an extra, cross-discipline Nobel, for those who have the ability to see across the no-man's-land that lies between the disciplines, to predict the changing patterns and trends in discovery, and act as lookouts on the frontiers of knowledge, so as to prepare the rest of us to make intelligent choices about which innovations we want to embrace, and which avoid.  Here again, tools like the K-web might offer very early training in that kind of thinking. 

AAASMC:What role might sites like the K-web have on healing the rift between the arts and sciences?
I wonder if the so-called rift between the arts and the sciences is not just a product of the late eighteenth-century Romantic Movement, which for the first time spread the concept of individualism and of the artist as in some way 'different,'  and promoted the idea that the arts were somehow separate from, and superior to the activities of everyday life. 

It's always easier to adopt stereotypes and cling to urban myths. We've hung on to this view of the arts and sciences well beyond its shelf life.  My impression is that even as C.P. Snow was presenting his 'Two Cultures' paradigm back in 1959, it was already out of date.  

Modern media, from radio to Internet, have done much to popularize, explain, and make accessible science and technology and to show their relevance to daily life.  At the same time, the cult of celebrity, and pop culture in general, has helped to demystify the arts.  

In this 'unified' environment, tools such as the K-web are perhaps useful in accelerating a process already well under way. Arts and sciences are just two sides of the same coin.

AAASMC: You are a great communicator. How can scientists improve how they communicate both with each other (and across disciplines) and with the public?
Thank you. I think younger scientists are already communicating their ideas to the general public much better than did the generation before them.  This is a product of the times.  We're all doing it.  For one thing, the general public are better educated and to a large extent, thanks to schools and the media, are already comfortable with much of the vocabulary of science and technology.  

However this is only a first step.  As information and communications technology bring a radical surge in the rate of innovation, the rising concern on the part of the public regarding the social consequences of its application will demand much greater real understanding of what's going on in R&D well in advance of any public release of innovatory products. 

However, it has become clear over the past few decades that the social institutions are incapable of satisfying such demand. In particular, with regard to such matters as climate change, genetically modified crops, stem-cell research, etc., there is a growing and urgent need to develop more efficient, more transparent, more democratic ways of working through these issues. 

It would seem unwieldy to add a 'Public Understanding of Science' course to a science student's already overburdened university years. Perhaps we might train a separate cadre of 'interpreters,' whose task it would be to act as lab-to-public go-betweens, who might also better brief our political representatives. 

Though I don't hold out much hope for the survival of that particular class, as the electronic media increasingly make the idea of a single representative, speaking for hundreds of thousands (sometimes millions) of people,  seem more and more like an eighteenth-century answer to a twenty-first century problem.  K-webs and their like might help us on the road towards developing better mechanisms for arriving at collective understanding and collective decision making about the kind of world we want to live in.  A world, incidentally, almost entirely shaped by science.

Related Links:

  • The Knowledge Web needs volunteers.  If you're interested, please contact James Burke or Project Director Dr. Patrick McKercher at UCSC at (
Representative Image Caption
Science historian James Burke's Knowledge Web is an online database that allows users to explore the history and creation of ideas, connecting seemingly unrelated events, showing that all knowledge is somehow interrelated. (Photo: Courtesy James Burke)
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Thomas J. Impelluso, Ph.D.