Saturday, January 26, 2008

Reading :: The Pinball Effect

The Pinball Effect: How Renaissance Water Gardens Made Carburetor Possible - and Other Journeys
by James Burke

When I was a kid, I was fascinated by James Burke's Connections series, in which he would trace causal historical connections among apparently unrelated things. The invention of X would make Y possible, leading to Z, and suddenly it would be so clear that if it weren't for water gardens, we wouldn't have the carburetor.

That sort of causal tracing is a lot of fun when you're a teenager, watching an hour-long PBS special and learning little pieces of history. So when I received Burke's The Pinball Effect for Christmas, I figured I would have just as much fun with this piece of light reading. Unfortunately, it doesn't work so well -- whether it's because I'm older and wider-read or because a book-length treatment makes the flaws more obvious, I'm not sure which. In any case, Burke emphasizes that everything is connected and that we can dig up all sorts of surprising connections between given products, ideas, and inventions. He works these connections in various ways: showing how three unrelated products emerged from the same point, demonstrating how one invention a few centuries ago led to an entirely different solution in this one, etc. etc. The problem is that after a few chapters, the game becomes pretty obvious and we begin to suspect that we can connect pretty much anything to anything else if there are enough intervening steps. The book quickly loses its ability to surprise or delight.

On the other hand, Amazon gives it four stars. Check out their reviews and, if the book sounds interesting, don't hesitate to check it out.

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