James Burke, Weightless

I grew up on James Burke‘s books and television series, a taste I inherited from my father. All the way through high school, I had a reputation as a know-it-all, a walking encyclopaedia (who was, at least, a helpful guy). I kept telling people that if they’d watched Connections — and read The Cartoon History of the Universe — my know-it-all-itude would be a great deal less impressive.

I saw James Burke live, once, at an aerospace conference back in 2000. I had to run off and do something else right after his talk, so I didn’t get a chance to have a conversation or even get a book autographed (one more reason I’m glad I was able to say thanks to James Gleick). I do, however, remember a story he told about his days in the BBC, covering the Apollo program.

He was responsible for explaining the scientific motivations for going to the Moon, the motivations which stay valid after you beat the Russians there. As he reports in the Connections book, the British media put more emphasis on this than the Americans did, so British interest remained relatively high during the later missions, when NASA’s TV ratings in the United States were dropping. At the time, the significance of all this was probably less apparent, and Burke was busy enough just trying to translate NASA tech-speak into something people could understand.

Part of this job involved reading through NASA’s manuals for the equipment which would be used on the Moon. These machines were not simple devices, nor were their instructions straightforward. Each manual had to have a full description of possible failure modes, with contingency plans for each eventuality, and all written with such detail that both the astronauts and the Mission Control people could handle all possible malfunctions without going back to the original engineers. The result, Burke said, was something like this: “If X-Y-Zed, then gobbledygook. If X-Y-Zed-Beta, then gobbledygook squared.”

Finally, after a whole page of bullet-pointed technical jargon, came the last contingency plan:

“If all else fails, kick with lunar boot.”

And because this is the multimedia era, here’s a clip from BBC Four, in which James Burke demonstrates how the KC-135 “Vomit Comet” was used for weightless training.

4 thoughts on “James Burke, Weightless”

  1. When I click said video, an apology appears, explaining that this video is no longer available. Now, Blake, I know you believe in OPEN access, but apparently someone buggered the copyright or something on this clip. Anyway, just thought you’d like to know. . .

  2. I am writing to call to your attention to a new book, Connections: Patterns of Discovery.

    This book was inspired by James Burke’s PBS Connection Series and it includes a Foreword written by him.

    James Burke describes the book by saying:

    In their fascinating analysis of the recent history of information technology, H. Peter Alesso and Craig F. Smith reveal the patterns in discovery and innovation that have brought us to the present tipping point. . . . A generation from now, every individual will have personally tailored access to the whole of knowledge . . . the sooner we all begin to think about how we got here, and where we’re going, the better. This exciting book is an essential first step.


    Many people envision scientists as dispassionate characters who slavishly repeat experiments until “eureka”—something unexpected happens. Actually, there is a great deal more to the story of scientific discovery, but seeing “the big picture” is not easy. Connections: Patterns of Discovery uses the primary tools of forecasting and three archetypal patterns of discovery—Serendipity, Proof of Principle, and 1% Inspiration and 99% Perspiration—to discern relationships of past developments and synthesize a cohesive and compelling vision for the future. It challenges readers to think of the consequences of extrapolating trends, such as Moore’s Law, to either reach real machine intelligence or retrench in the face of physical limitations. From this perspective,the book draws “the big picture” for the Information Revolution’s innovations in chips, devices, software, and networks.

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