Notes from The Day The Universe Changed: A Personal View by James Burke

Episode 1: The Way We Are

Every group “thinks it’s the best there is… Every group, nation, tribe, cult, ideology, each one certain of its version of the truth.”

In the West, we are “insatiably curious… to ask questions and get answers… question authority…”

In the East, “all the answers a Buddhist needs were found 2,000 years ago.”


Rituals as a way to say: whatever “may change, we won’t rock the boat, we’re not maverick, you can trust us.”

If a ritual becomes too big… the responsibility for running is taken over by institutions set up to run the rituals that matter on a regular basis.

Institutions become so big they’re hard to change or get rid of; they’re old-fashioned and don’t like change.

The Business of Change

“The business of questioning itself has been institutionalised…” at universities.

At research facilities “we’ve institutionalised the business of change.”

What they produce is approved by us in the market, if it doesn’t sell “the kind of change it would have brought isn’t the kind of change we wanted.”

A Continuous Cycle

Life now is working to buy this year’s model because last year’s, is last year’s.

So this is what questioning has brought us: if we are what we know, then what we are in the modern West is unsure about how long it’ll be before what we know is out of date.

The only constant in life is change… in standards, attitudes, ethics, values, morals… all shifting. The inevitable end product of that Greek rationalism…

So here we are, committed by our Greek origins to a life of asking questions that provide answers that turn out to create more questions, and no end in sight. And as our amazing abilities grow more amazing, the more questions we ask. We’re reaching the stage where it’s not a matter of what novelty and change the future will bring next, but what kind of future we care to invent, make happen. We can make deserts bloom or make deserts, move mountains, maybe create life, all because we can’t leave things alone.

Episode 5: Infinitely Reasonable

We’re healthier, wealthier, more comfortable, better informed than ever before in history, thanks to science. And each one of us has more power at a fingertip than any empress who ever built a palace.

Episode 6: Credit Where It’s Due

Life today consists of thousands of identical bits made by other people for you to buy. Just like they buy what you make with the money they earn from selling you the things they make. And then once a year everybody stops doing it to each and does it to the tourist industry.

The onward an upward style of Western life, the good times, the throwaway philosophy that goes with building a new model every year so that everybody can keep their jobs and they can increase their standard of living is really a nineteenth century way of doing things. That’s what the industrial revolution gave us: the desire for more, bigger, better, cheaper, faster. And back then there was hardly anyone around to make much of a dent in the raw materials they started to dig up to turn into amazing luxuries, or bare necessities as we would call them now. Today whole countries rely almost entirely on the raw materials that they have that we want… Sure, we can alter the shape of the planet with our new found industrial muscle, we can turn it into a giant hole in the ground, then what?

Episode 7: What the Doctor Ordered

On the 1854 Broad Street cholera outbreak, how Cholera wasn’t understood—was it bad air, bad smells, etc—but it could still be addressed, treated.

Episode 10: Worlds Without End

In a future world that we would describe as balanced anarchy, and they will describe as an open society, tolerant of every view, aware that there is no single privileged way of doing things. Above all, able to do away with the greatest tragedy of our era, the centuries old waste of human talent that we couldn’t or wouldn’t use. Utopia? Why? If as I’ve said all along the universe is at any time what you say it is, then say.