James Burke’s “Admiral Shovel and the Toilet Roll” Speech

May 31, 2013

I’ve been catching up with watching, or listening to, presentations and speeches that I’ve bookmarked over the past year. (It ends up being a “two birds with one stone” situation, as I watch/listen to them as I exercise. I’m also exercising to MIT’s “Introduction to Computer Science and Programming” course at iTunes U, but who doesn’t?) One such speech that I just listened to was “Admiral Shovel and the Toilet Roll” by James Burke. 

Burke is a British broadcaster and historian, who focuses on the interconnectivity of different fields of study. For example, in the speech,   Burke explains how a device that made it easier to load camels resulted in the English language having a strong French influence. (The relationship between Admiral Shovel [or Shovell], whose naval fleet crashed on the rocks outside of Sicily, and the invention of toilet paper rolls is another example in the speech.) Although the causality is never as simple or direct as Burke suggests, these kinds of connections always fascinated me.

Burke concludes the speech with a discussion of nanotechnology and the notion of personal nanotechnology factories, which he considers to be inevitable. It’s a bit of a science fiction leap, I think, but the implications of this idea are profound and worth pondering.

If you have about 40 minutes and like to think about interesting things, give it a listen. Perhaps, like me, you’ll do so while exercising, for the simultaneous betterment of the mind and body.