TWIN TRACKS by James Burke
Kirkus Star


The Unexpected Origins of the Modern World
Email this review


The serendipities that have helped shape the world as we know it today.

How did an attack on the Tripoli pirates lead to fish sticks? What did Mozart have to do with the development of the Stealth aircraft? Burke (The Knowledge Web, 1999, etc.), always intriguing, demonstrates how fabulously disparate events have impinged on one another, highlighting the effects of chance, all those unexpected novelties that come to life as the result of unforeseeable encounters. Burke keeps his weavings tight, which is not to say that they don't get dazzling to the point of blinding at times. In seeking to demonstrate the curious relationship between a fake piece of Scots culture and the development of organ transplants, for example, he guides readers from James Macpherson, 18th-century creator of the phony third-century epic, to Walter Scott and his historical novels, an American Kultur-tourist named George Bancroft, heiress and philanthropist Angela Burdett-Coutts, imperialist icon James Brooke, parish priest and social worker Charles Kingsley, “Christian Socialist on steroids” Fred Furnivall, and Oxford lecturer Hippolyte Taine, to anarchist Auguste Vaillant, whose assassination of French President Carnot inspired Alexis Carrel to devise triangulation, used by Charles Lindbergh in his perfusion pump. There is a little leap between Emil Zola and Vaillant, but it is all part of the circumstance. And this is only “Track One” of the story. Burke has arranged his material so that each chapter has an introductory paragraph and then splits into two tracks, one of which proceeds on successive left-hand pages, the other on the right. This serves to further the notion of interpenetration and reciprocity, and it is tempting to read the two tracks at one go, though it can all get wildly confusing, considering the myriad of minutiae involved.

Pyrotechnical enough to cause brain fever, but the author’s sly hand elegantly unravels these knotty historical cloverleafs.

Pub Date: Sept. 8th, 2003
ISBN: 0-7432-2619-4
Page count: 288pp
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15th, 2003


NonfictionTHE KNOWLEDGE WEB by James Burke
by James Burke
NonfictionTHE PINBALL EFFECT by James Burke
by James Burke
NonfictionTHE AXEMAKER'S GIFT by James Burke
by James Burke