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Documentaries I Like: Connections

Connections - James BurkeConnections was a documentary series produced for the BBC in 1978. It sought to explain human history through an "alternative view of change" in which multiple aspects of history, including technology, religion, and finance combine to bring about social change. This mode of analysis moves beyond conventional linear narrative, and as a result embraces complexity. Each episode is an essay connecting several seemingly disparate events or technologies through an extended web of logic -- it's great fun to follow.

Connections was hosted by James Burke, whose dry humor pervades each episode. The fifth episode, for example, starts with a fullscreen view of a punchcard. Burke narrates: "What you're looking at is a bit of paper with holes in it. How's that for a spectacular way to start a program? But this may be the most important bit of paper with holes in it since the hole was invented." Burke goes on to explain -- via a discussion of astronomy, calendaring, clockwork, Sheffield steel cutlery, sea navigation, mechanized manufacturing, guns, John Kenneth Galbraith, and much more -- how computers came to be. Burke also spends some time explaining why computers will be important to the future of humanity (this was 1978, after all), and his discussion remains relevant and interesting thirty years on.

More, including a YouTube clip, after the jump.

Here's a YouTube clip from the fourth episode, "Faith in Numbers":

(Note: YouTube user JamesBurkeFan has posted tons of clips from various Burke series, including a few complete episodes of Connections, broken up into ten-minute segments.)

Connections is a lot of fun to watch. It's definitely family-friendly, though your kids may find it a little slow. If you enjoyed Carl Sagan's Cosmos or you like trips to science museums, you'll really dig this series.

After the success of the first ten-episode Connections series, Burke created two more series: Connections² 1992 (twenty episodes) and Connections³ (ten episodes) in 1997. You can read more about the series at Wikipedia or rent the it from Netflix (link is to the original series, but the other two are also available). Your local library is also likely to have the DVD sets on the shelf -- all three series are out on DVD, but are nearly $150 retail, so I'd recommend renting them. If you're a major James Burke junkie, don't miss the James Burke Fan Companion site, packed with content for Burke-aholics.

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Department Of Classics, University Of Cincinnati
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
Ancient Poop Contains First Evidence of Parasites Described by Hippocrates
Department Of Classics, University Of Cincinnati
Department Of Classics, University Of Cincinnati

The long-held mystery of Hippocrates and the parasitic worms has finally been solved, and it’s all thanks to a few samples of ancient poop.

Researchers don’t know much about the parasites that plagued the Greeks thousands of years ago, and what they do know is largely from the Hippocratic Corpus, the medical texts that the father of medicine and his students put together between the 4th and 3rd centuries BCE. Modern historians have spent years trying to figure out which diseases and parasites Hippocrates and his followers were referring to in their writing, relying solely on their descriptions to guess at what ailments the ancient Greeks might have suffered from. Now, they finally have concrete evidence of the existence of some of the intestinal worms Hippocrates mentioned, Helmins strongyle and Ascaris.

As part of a study in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports, an international group of researchers analyzed the ancient remains of feces in 25 prehistoric burials on the Greek island of Kea to determine what parasites the people were carrying when they died. Using microscopes, they looked at the soil (formed by the decomposed poop) found on the pelvic bones of skeletons dating back to the Neolithic, Bronze, and Roman periods.

A roundworm egg under the microscope
A roundworm egg
Elsevier

Around 16 percent of the burials they studied contained evidence of parasites. In these ancient fecal samples, they found the eggs of two different parasitic species. In the soil taken from the skeletons dating back to the Neolithic period, they found whipworm eggs, and in the soil taken from the Bronze Age skeletons, roundworm.

With this information, researchers deduced that what Hippocrates called the Helmins strongyle worm was probably what modern doctors would call roundworm. The Ascaris worm probably referred to two different parasites, they conclude, known today as pinworm (which was not found in this analysis) and whipworm (pictured below).

Whipworm under a microscope
A whipworm egg
Elsevier

Though historians already hypothesized that Hippocrates's patients on Kea had roundworm, the Ascaris finding comes as a particular surprise. Previous research based solely on Hippocrates’s writing rather than physical evidence suggested that what he called Ascaris was probably a pinworm, and another worm he mentioned, Helmins plateia, was probably a tapeworm. But the current research didn’t turn up any evidence of either of those two worms. Instead of pinworm eggs, the researchers found whipworm, another worm that’s similarly small and round. (Pinworms may very well have existed in ancient Greece, the researchers caution, since evidence of their fragile eggs could easily have been lost to time.) The soil analysis has already changed what we know about the intestinal woes of the ancient Greeks of Kea.

More importantly, this study provides the earliest evidence of ancient Greece’s parasitic worm population, proving yet again that ancient poop is one of the world’s most important scientific resources.

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science
Arctic Temperatures are Rising So Fast, They're Confusing the Hell Out of Computers
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iStock

This past year was a brutal one for northern Alaska, which saw temperatures that soared above what was normal month after month. But you wouldn't know that by looking at the numbers from the weather station at Utqiaġvik, Alaska. That's because the recent heat was so unusual for the area that computers marked the data as incorrect and failed to report it for the entirety of 2017, leaving a hole in the records of the Climate Monitoring group at the National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI), according to the Huffington Post.

The weather station in the northernmost tip of Alaska has been measuring temperatures for nearly a century. A computer system there is programed to recognize if the data has been influenced by artificial forces: Perhaps one of the instruments isn't working correctly, or something is making the immediate area unnaturally hot or cold. In these cases, the computer edits out the anomalies so they don't affect the rest of the data.

But climate change has complicated this failsafe. Temperatures have been so abnormally high that the Utqiaġvik station erroneously removed all its data for 2017 and part of 2016. A look at the region's weather history explains why the computers might have sensed a mistake: The average yearly temperature for the era between 2000 and 2017 has gone up by 1.9°F from that of the era between 1979 and 1999. Break it down by month and the numbers are even more alarming: The average temperature increase is 7.8°F for October, 6.9°F for November, and 4.7°F for December.

"In the context of a changing climate, the Arctic is changing more rapidly than the rest of the planet," Deke Arndt, chief of NOAA's Climate Monitoring Branch, wrote for climate.gov. The higher temperatures rise, the faster Arctic sea ice melts. Arctic sea ice acts as a mirror that reflects the Sun's rays back into space, and without that barrier, the sea absorbs more heat from the Sun and speeds up the warming process. “Utqiaġvik, as one of a precious few fairly long-term observing sites in the American Arctic, is often referenced as an embodiment of rapid Arctic change,” Arndt wrote.

As temperatures continue to grow faster than computers are used to, scientists will have to adjust their algorithms in response. The team at NCEI plans to have the Utqiaġvik station ready to record our changing climate once again within the next few months.

[h/t Huffington Post]

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