Greetings from Amazon.com Delivers Science and Nature
If you haven't yet discovered the delights hidden in the
mind of James Burke, you are in for a treat. Burke, the host
of the popular television series "Connections," is a
passionate genius committed to popularizing science through
informative, clever teaching. His specialty is drawing links
between seemingly unrelated events and things, often by
using technological and social processes to explain the
hidden similarities. In his new book, "The Knowledge Web,"
Burke links up odd things like vivisection and Stonehenge,
warships and instant coffee. In this article, an exclusive
for Amazon.com subscribers, Burke reveals the connections
between books and the Internet, a subject near and dear to
You can find "The Knowledge Web" at
by James Burke
Johannes Gutenberg didn't know it, but his "little trick"
(the printing press) would one day make it possible for you
to be here in the biggest bookstore in cyberspace. But not
just because Gutenberg made "reading the infatuation of
people who have no business reading" (contemporary
criticism!)--it turned out the press was just what Philip II
of Spain needed to make 50,000 copies of the liturgy,
standardizing Catholic worship in Spain. Philip gave the job
to Antwerp printer Christophe Plantin, who then went on to
publish mapmakers like Plancius, who advised an English
adventurer named Henry Hudson where to look for the mythical
Northwest Passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Hudson's
bosses in the Dutch East India Company wanted an alternate
route to China's tea and porcelain markets (and lots of
profit), since the route via Africa was sewn up by the
Portuguese. Others were chasing the same profits, including
French minister Jean-Baptiste Colbert, who was trying to
pull France out of an economic nosedive. One of his plans
was to put French industry back on its feet so France could
stop having to import everything.
Colbert founded several new manufacturing companies, one of
which ended up making the greatest tapestries ever seen.
This was the Gobelins Factory, just outside Paris. You can
still see original Gobelins tapestries (but at a zillion
bucks a throw, seeing them is all you're likely to do). In
the early 19th century, the guy running Gobelins was
Michel-Eugene Chevreul, hotshot on dyes and animal fats in
wool (i.e., how the former behaved when in contact with the
latter). His fats expertise persuaded a pupil (Hippolyte
Mege-Mouries) to invent margarine, with help from science
freak Emperor Napoleon III, who also built a special lab for
Claude Bernard, the physiologist who discovered how your
liver keeps your sugar levels right--and whose work led an
American, Walter Cannon, to discover the whole homeostasis
process that maintains all the body systems in balance.
(Cold? You shiver and warm up. Thirsty? You get dry-mouthed
and drink.) Cannon's assistant, Rosenbleuth, also spent a
lot of time with a mathematician interested in homeostasis
because he wanted to encode the whole process of feedback so
he could use continual updates from radar data on incoming
World War II missiles to aim guns at them more accurately.
The technique became known by the Greek word for the way a
steersman refines the course of his ship by using continual
feedback from wind and waves to compensate for their effect.
The version of that word our mathematician coined was
"cybernetics," and it's responsible for everything you've
been doing for the last few minutes (or any time you're on a
computer), because cybernetics is at the root of computer
So... thanks to Gutenberg, that gun-pointing mathematician,
Norbert Wiener, was able to publish his book "I Am a
Mathematician." And also thanks to Gutenberg, you can use
cybernetics to find it on Amazon.com!
Featured in this e-mail:
"The Knowledge Web"
by James Burke
"I Am a Mathematician"
by Norbert Wiener
You'll find more great books, articles, excerpts, and
interviews in Amazon.com's Science & Nature section at
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