"The Pinball Effect" takes the reader on many different journeys through the web of knowledge. Knowledge, it turns out, has many unforeseen and surprising effects. The book, for instance, owes its existence to German jeweler Johannes Gutenberg's getting the date wrong one day in the fifteenth century. James Burke, author and host of the highly rated documentary series Connections 2, draws upon years of research to examine the intrigues and surprises on the journey through knowledge, a trip with all the twists and turns of a detective story. Ultimately, the larger picture that emerges has far-reaching and important implications for the future, revealing why the fundamental mechanism of change is the way things come together and connect. To add to the excitement, "The Pinball Effect" has been designed to be read interactively: throughout the book, cross-chapter references mimic computer hypertext "hot links" and allow readers to leap from one chapter to another. The result is a fascinating tour through history's most dramatic innovations.
Another of Burke's (The Axemaker's Gift, 1995, etc.) customary grand tours of the human experience, this time unraveling the serendipitous effects of innovation. We live, Burke asserts, in a "dynamic web of change." It is the very expression of our existence: As we act and are acted upon, the things we create - from thoughts to lawnmowers - have myriad unintended consequences, sometimes way down the road, or in distant lands, with inventions or ideas intermingling in unexpected or obscure but nonetheless influential ways. How have grave-robbing, the safety match, and early copy paper been linked in the great historical flow? Burke draws the connections, not just in straight narrative fashion, but also in cross-references (or "gateways," as he calls them), identifying when the path of one innovation intersects the path of another. These gateways point readers to other sections of the book, jumping forward and back, establishing the connectedness of it all. And it can be good fun, this bopping about the narrative, pinballing between ideas and discoveries, creating the web: discovering how logging denuded Michigan, but also gave rise to the gold rush; how the sinking of the Allied fleet off Balaklava in 1854 influenced the creation of McAdam (later known as macadam) roads in London. Burke's story can also be read in linear mode, start to finish, with equal pleasure, one new wrinkle tripping over another as necessity, intuition, and dumb luck become the mothers of invention: An accident by a Dutch inventor in 1620 helped spawn the New Model Army by way of the female cochineal beetle. Burke's sweep is vast. Kant gets a mulling, as do Freud, the Brothers Grimm, and the Visigoth king Recared; so too do gyroscopes, lighthouses, the permanent wave in a woman's hair. Thoughtful, articulate, titillating. Burke pulls off that neatest of tricks: to amuse and instruct. (Kirkus Reviews)