The Pinball Effect 
How Did Renaissance Water Gardens Make
the Carburetor Possible?
Reviewed by Ian Bullock

Readers interested in science and history are guaranteed to enjoy The Pinball Effect, by James Burke, a witty and engaging look at the spin-offs and unintended consequences resulting from scientific discoveries and historical events. One of the reasons for the title ‘pinball effect’.

In keeping with the title, there is a chapter on how to read the book, which you can do from start to finish, the traditional way, or by bouncing around, like a pinball, by following the page and reference numbers in the margins. Therefore, if a particular event, discovery, personage - whatever - sparks your curiosity, you just allow the page references to guide you.

The concluding thought or event in each chapter serves as a logical connecting point to the subject covered by the next ensuing chapter, regardless of time and space, such that the final chapter comes full circle to the beginning, underscoring Burke’s opening point that, “It doesn’t matter where you begin a journey on the great web of change. There is no right place, and no event too humdrum to start from, because one of the fascinating things about the web is the way effects ripple across it.”

In his introduction the author states that the book has two principal aims. One being the pinball way change happens. The other a more serious look at the information age that calls for a different way we need to think about knowledge and how it should be used as the data in our knowledge-bases becomes ever more rapidly obsolete, raising the necessity of constantly reskilling ourselves over the course of a lifetime. He cautions that the new technologies will not enhance our lives if we are unprepared for them.

"If knowledge is an artifact, and innovation is the result of interaction on the web (of change), then the way for us to better manage change is to become better acquainted with the interactive process. So, in a future world changing too fast for the old-fashioned, specialist approach to education, it may benefit us to require young people to journey the web as a primary learning experience, much in the same way as we taught their ancestors to read books after Gutenberg had invented the printing press. Schools might train students to weave their way ideosynchratically through the web, imagining their way to solutions, rather than learning by rote lists of data that will be obsolete before they can use them.”

Burke entertainingly debunks many of the historical myths we grew up with (James Watt didn’t invent the steam engine, he merely took the credit for it; but he did invent the copier, and that he didn’t get credit for) and his extensive research leads to sometimes bizarre conclusions (Sleeping Beauty is a tale of necrophilia).

It is encouraging to learn that the science of social anthropology is pursuading us that we can survive the increasingly chaotic events and rapidity of change in the current era by celebrating the differences that exist among us, in stark contrast with the dead hand of control by power elites that has more often than not disastrously sought to constrain humanity during most of recorded history.

One of Burke’s concluding observations is about the interdependence of all humanity, and of knowledge: “Nothing on the great web of change exists in isolation. ...... the pinball of change works its magic, bouncing here and there across time and space. There is no single, correct pathway on the web, or in life. Mistrust anybody who tells you so.”

This book does indeed amuse and instruct. Trivia buffs will love it!

The Pinball Effect (How Renaissance Water Gardens Made the Carburetor Possible - and Other Journeys Through Knowledge) by James Burke, Little, Brown and Company.

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Copyright 1998 by Ian Bullock. All rights reserved.

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