You may remember a series of program on PBS a number of years ago in which a wispy-haired, gnomish-looking fellow talked about how one scientific advance led to others in unexpected ways.
The host's name was James Burke and he has made a career out of these connections (in fact "Connections" was the title of the PBS series that first aired in 1978).
Mr. Burke (don't confuse him with James Lee Burke, an American crime fiction writer best known for his Dave Robicheaux series) was educated at Oxford and in 1966 joined the BBC Science and Feature Department. He was the main presenter on the BBC's coverage of the Apollo moon landing in 1969.
But his big idea was that the history or science and technology could be taught entertainingly by tracing links through interrelationships between people and events. These links formed paths that often ended up back where they started. What Isaac Newton meant when he said, "Standing on the shoulder of giants."
For instance, in Mr. Burke's 2000 book, "Circles: Fifty Round Trips Through History, Technology, Science, Culture," one chapter begins with the Suez Canal and goes on to drilling tunnels in the Alps, to George Westinghouse and Nikola Tesla to the gyroscope to P.T. Barnum to Jenny Lind to Verdi's "Aida" back to the Suez Canal.
His tales involve money and bankruptcy and power and war and sex and all sorts of human failings and triumphs.
Mr. Burke has championed this type of associative thinking. His original "Connections" TV series on BBC spawned "Connections 2" in 1994 and "Connections 3" in 1997. Among his other TV projects was "The Day the Universe Changed" in 1985.
His books include "Connections," "Circles," "The Axemaker's Gift (with Robert Ormstein)," "The Pinball Effect" and "American Connections: The Founding Fathers. Networked."
At the end of the 1985's program "The Day the Universe Changed," Mr. Burke presciently predicted that a revolution in computer technology would allow people all over the world to exchange ideas and opinions instantaneously. And in his 1996 book, "The Pinball Effect," he included page numbers at the end of certain paragraphs to link them with events elsewhere in the book, like links on the World Wide Web.
Mr. Burke's works are still available. Most of his books remain in print, and Carnegie Library has DVD sets of his television series; or you can watch them on YouTube.
Even after more than 30 years, the TV shows are still entertaining and relevant.
Mr. Burke has expanded his ideas into the Knowledge Web Project (k-web.org), a learning Web site with a goal of informing about the scientists, artists, innovators and explorers of history and finding the connections between them and their impact on modern life.
Mr. Burke and the Knowledge Web focus on ties between people -- who met whom, who worked for whom, who was friends with whom. Knowledge Web is designed to be an interactive teaching tool for schools as well as a reference tool. It is also a place to see Mr. Burke's connections at work.
Read the TechMan blog at post-gazette.com/techman . Watch the TechTalk video podcast at post-gazette.com/multimedia and hear the audio version at post-gazettte.com/podcast . Follow PGTechMan on Twitter.