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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Whale Sharks Can Live for More Than a Century, Study Finds
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Some whale sharks alive today have been swimming around since the Gilded Age. The animals—the largest fish in the ocean—can live as long as 130 years, according to a new study in the journal Marine and Freshwater Research. To give you an idea of how long that is, in 1888, Grover Cleveland was finishing up his first presidential term, Thomas Edison had just started selling his first light bulbs, and the U.S. only had 38 states.

To determine whale sharks' longevity, researchers from the Nova Southeastern University in Florida and the Maldives Whale Shark Research Program tracked male sharks around South Ari Atoll in the Maldives over the course of 10 years, calculating their sizes as they came back to the area over and over again. The scientists identified sharks that returned to the atoll every few years by their distinctive spot patterns, estimating their body lengths with lasers, tape, and visually to try to get the most accurate idea of their sizes.

Using these measurements and data on whale shark growth patterns, the researchers were able to determine that male whale sharks tend to reach maturity around 25 years old and live until they’re about 130 years old. During those decades, they reach an average length of 61.7 feet—about as long as a bowling lane.

While whale sharks are known as gentle giants, they’re difficult to study, and scientists still don’t know a ton about them. They’re considered endangered, making any information we can gather about them important. And this is the first time scientists have been able to accurately measure live, swimming whale sharks.

“Up to now, such aging and growth research has required obtaining vertebrae from dead whale sharks and counting growth rings, analogous to counting tree rings, to determine age,” first author Cameron Perry said in a press statement. ”Our work shows that we can obtain age and growth information without relying on dead sharks captured in fisheries. That is a big deal.”

Though whale sharks appear to be quite long-lived, their lifespan is short compared to the Greenland shark's—in 2016, researchers reported they may live for 400 years. 

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Scientists Find a Possible Link Between Beef Jerky and Mania
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Scientist have discovered a surprising new factor that may contribute to mania: meat sticks. As NBC News reports, processed meats containing nitrates, like jerky and some cold cuts, may provoke symptoms of mental illness.

For a new study, published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry, scientists surveyed roughly 1100 people with psychiatric disorders who were admitted into the Sheppard Pratt Health System in Baltimore between 2007 and 2017. They had initially set out to find whether there was any connection between certain infectious diseases and mania, a common symptom of bipolar disorder that can include racing thoughts, intense euphoria, and irritability.

While questioning participants about their diet, the researchers discovered that a significant number of them had eaten cured meats before their manic episodes. Patients who had recently consumed products like salami, jerky, and dried meat sticks were more likely to be hospitalized for mania than subjects in the control group.

The link can be narrowed down to nitrates, which are preservatives added to many types of cured meats. In a later part of the study, rats that were fed nitrate-free jerky acted less hyperactive than those who were given meat with nitrates.

Numerous studies have been published on the risks of consuming foods pumped full of nitrates: The ingredient can lead to the formation of carcinogens, and it can react in the gut in a way that promotes inflammation. It's possible that inflammation from nitrates can trigger mania in people who are already susceptible to it, but scientists aren't sure how this process might work. More research still needs to be done on the relationship between gut health and mental health before people with psychiatric disorders are told to avoid beef jerky altogether.

[h/t NBC News]

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