(subtitled “A Personal View by James Burke”) is a British documentary television series written and presented by science historian James Burke, originally broadcast in 1985 by the BBC.

The series’ primary focus is on the effect of advances in science and technology on western philosophy. The title comes from the philosophical idea that the universe essentially only exists as you perceive it through what you know; therefore, if you change your perception of the universe with new knowledge, you have essentially changed the universe itself.

To illustrate this concept, James Burke tells the various stories of important scientific discoveries and technological advances and how they fundamentally altered how western civilization perceives the world. The series runs in roughly chronological order, from around the beginning of the Middle Ages to the present.

A companion book of the same title, also written by Burke, was published in 1985 (ISBN 0316117064; revised edition 1995), presenting the same general premise of the television series in expanded detail. Burke read from the book for an abridged audiocassette and compact disc set available from Macmillan Audio.[2]

Home video releases

Licensed by the BBC, The Day the Universe Changed was released on DVD in January 2009 by Documentary-Video (ISBN 3981500437). The five-disc set is closed captioned for the hearing impaired and approximately 550 minutes in length.[3]



1. The Way We Are: It Started with the Greeks

2. In the Light of the Above: Medieval Conflict – Faith & Reason

3. Point of View: Scientific Imagination in the Renaissance

4. A Matter of Fact: Printing Transforms Knowledge

5. Infinitely Reasonable: Science Revises the Heavens

6. Credit Where It’s Due: The Factory & Marketplace Revolution

7. What the Doctor Ordered: Social Impacts of New Medical Knowledge

8. Fit to Rule: Darwin’s Revolution

9. Making Waves: The New Physics – Newton Revised

10. Worlds Without End: Changing Knowledge, Changing Reality

Reviews and commentary

  • Alfred Unger, The Christian Science Monitor (October 14, 1986) — The Day the Universe Changed is studded with flashes of insight amid its potpourri of intellectual revelations. Burke believes that it will encourage viewers to examine what they know, digest what he has to tell them, and come up with, possibly, a new way of looking at things.
  • John Corry, The New York Times (October 16, 1986) — Television on a grand scale. Mr. Burke is interested in ideas, and they bubble and perk throughout. Sometimes we’ll get lost, but most likely we’ll stay interested. This is provocative stuff.[4]
  • Diana Simmonds, Sydney Morning Herald (August 6, 1988) — James Burke could have the answer. Maddeningly, he has the answer to most things and has had for years. This year he’s being dazzling in The Day The Universe Changed (SBS). This series, in which he verbally dances through the earth-shattering events in history is, quite simply, exciting. Like an intravenous slug of ice-cold Akvavit, he provokes shivers of shock and pleasure. His mix of cleverness, egotism, fun, imagination and accessibility is similar to the television styles of Robert Hughes or J.K.Galbraith, except that Burke is also naughty — like a mischievous elf.

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