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Jacob Bronowski

The brilliant mathematician and philosopher whose Ascent of Man series remains relevant for its faith in human progress
Jacob Bronowskis’s overriding thesis was that science and arts are two sides of the same coin, inextricably interlinked and interdependent.
GRASSO LUIGI - (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Michael Parkinson, who died in August, was asked one question more than any other: who was your favourite interviewee? He had around 2,000 to choose from, but the one who stood out was not an actor, a singer, a sports star or anyone else who enjoyed the easy currency of modern fame. No: Parky’s favourite interviewee was a small, bespectacled man of polymathic intellect who, among many other things, wrote and presented one of the most extraordinary and enduring television series ever made.

Jacob Bronowski was both a man of his times and a man for all time. His life surfed the tectonic plates of twentieth-century international geopolitics as they moved, crashed and ruptured. Born in 1908 in the Polish city of Łódź (then part of the Russian empire), he moved as a child first to Germany on the eve of World War I, and then to Britain after hostilities ended. He spoke only two words of English when he arrived, yet a decade later he graduated from Cambridge as Senior Wrangler, the best mathematician in his year. MI5’s misgivings about his leftist leanings notwithstanding, he used that mathematical genius during World War II to work out the most effective way of firebombing enemy cities, be that Bomber Command on Dresden or the US Air Force on Tokyo. Then, like so many other scientists of his era, he devoted himself to helping ensure that the atomic devastation visited on Hiroshima and Nagasaki should never happen again.

But while the arc of Bronowski’s life may have been anchored in a specific era, his attitudes and outlook were anything but. To this day, we are encouraged to think of science and the arts as distinct entities. Schoolchildren are shunted into specialisation aged sixteen, and for the vast majority their A-levels will be either all arts or all science. Among the British Library’s Reading Rooms are Humanities 1 and 2 and Science 2 and 3, but never do the twain meet.

Oh, for a Bronowski as Education Secretary, for he was having none of this. His overriding thesis was that science and arts are two sides of the same coin, inextricably interlinked and interdependent. He had no truck with clichés about science embodying reason and art imagination, science being limitation while art is freedom, or science discovering while art creates. No, he said: both are equal expressions of man’s “marvellous plasticity of mind”, and both rely on the human imagination, something which his wife Rita said “ran like a bright ribbon through the fabric of his thought.”

Bronowski’s own career was this in miniature. At Cambridge, he combined his stellar mathematical career with editing the literary magazine Experiment (whose contributors included Michael Redgrave and Henri Cartier-Bresson). As if this were not enough, he won a chess Blue to boot. His skill at chess, setting problems for magazines well into his sixties, was no surprise, for at its best the game combines mathematical precision and artistic bravura. His books, too, bear out this bipartite nature: The Common Sense of Science and Biography of an Atom jostle for shelf space with The Poet’s Defence and William Blake: A Man Without a Mask.

This approach to life and learning reached its apogee in his iconic 1973 TV series The Ascent of Man (its title a deliberate play on Charles Darwin’s The Descent Of Man). If Darwin had been interested in where man had come from, Bronowski wanted to know where man was going. He divided the series into thirteen parts, covering man’s scientific peaks together with a healthy amount of artistic appreciation.

Bronowski was no stranger to TV by then. Regular appearances on The Brains Trust, in which experts tried to answer questions sent in by the audience, had afforded him public recognition and even Monty Python referenced him as “Dr. Bloody Bronowski: he knows everything.” This led him to observe that “the intellectual has a very special status in England… he is thought rather comic but rather lovable. He is part of the landscape: you don’t have to take him too seriously, but you listen to him with courtesy and attention. England’s a country which has the greatest of charms for intellectuals like me: it’s a country of Philistines who are enormously tolerant.”

Darwin had been interested in where man had come from but Bronowski wanted to know where man was going

But The Ascent of Man was different televisual gravy altogether: a series whose aim – a rounded intellectual history of mankind – was wildly ambitious, but whose execution did justice to every ounce of that ambition. Filming spanned eighteen months and 27 countries, and the topics covered ranged from early migration patterns to alchemy, from Newton to Darwin, from the language of numbers to the periodic table, from the Industrial Revolution to cloning, and much more.

Jacob Bronowski as a young teenager, with his sister, Lilli. PHOTO: JESUS COLLEGE CAMBRIDGE

What is perhaps most notable about the series is Bronowski’s almost preternatural ability to present incredibly complex topics not just in accessible ways but memorably too. Not for him the plodding, the pedestrian, the obvious. He stood, metaphorically, a little off centre and looked at things slightly askance, because it was from there that he could see the things others couldn’t, from there that he found the parallax view of hidden connections and dazzling imagery. In one episode, discussing structure and space in architecture, he examined the symmetry of Moorish tiles in the Alhambra before scattering crystals on the ground and talking about their molecular symmetry: a stunning and surprising juxtaposition whose sheer audacity makes it impossible to forget. And he did all this without a script, flawlessly extemporising, for everything was in his head already.

So much has happened in science, let alone the world, in those 50 years since The Ascent of Man first aired. Back then computers were the size of cars, molecular biology and neuroscience were in their infancy, and communications were analogue to the point of primitiveness. But Bronowski’s skill ensures that the programme hardly feels dated at all. He not only accepts but positively relishes the fact that progress is never-ending, and that any given snapshot of it will sooner or later be superseded. “Many theories of the ancient world seem terribly childish today, a hodgepodge of fables and false comparisons. But our theories will seem childish 500 years from now. Every theory is based on some analogy, and sooner or later the theory fails because the analogy turns out to be false. A theory in its day helps to solve the problems of the day.”

These limitations were sources not of regret for Bronowski, but of joy. Progress comes from man’s ceaselessly searching nature, knowledge is “an unending adventure at the edge of uncertainty,” and this will only end when the fires of that collective desire for improvement are extinguished – in other words, when man stops being human. Nor is this abstract: on the contrary, it is intensely political. Societies in which absolute truths are held are societies which crush the life out of those forced to live in them. Art and science are not just desirable: they are essential, for together they comprise a modern, humanistic philosophy based on reason and discovery, which in turn can leave behind the superstition, poverty and violence which has marred so much of human history.

“It is important that students bring a certain ragamuffin, barefoot irreverence to their studies,” Bronowski said. “They are not here to worship what is known, but to question it. Has there ever been a society which has died of dissent? Several have died of conformity in our lifetime. If we are anything, we must be a democracy of the intellect. We must not perish by the distance between people and government, between people and power, by which Babylon and Egypt and Rome failed. And that distance can only be conflated, can only be closed, if knowledge sits in the homes and heads of people with no ambition to control others, and not up in the isolated seats of power.”

A still of Bronowski from “Ascent of Man”, his 1973 series about the history of mankind. Filming spanned eighteen months and 27 countries, with topics covering everything from Newton to Darwin, the language numbers to the periodic tables and much more

His 1956 Science and Human Values wears its heart on its cover: for Bronowski, knowing that man’s capacity to do things has almost always run ahead of his ability to decide whether or not he should do them, science is valid only if its ethical underpinnings are good. “Knowledge is not a loose-leaf notebook of facts. Above all, it is a responsibility for the integrity of what we are, primarily of what we are as ethical creatures.”

Never was this responsibility more clearly seen than in the The Ascent of Man’s most famous scene. Bronowski is walking through a field just outside the perimeter fence of Auschwitz, the place where some of his family members had been killed. “It’s said that science will dehumanise people and turn them into numbers. That’s false, tragically false. Look for yourself. This is the concentration camp and crematorium at Auschwitz. This is where people were turned into numbers. Into this pond were flushed the ashes of some four million people. And that was not done by gas. It was done by arrogance, it was done by dogma, it was done by ignorance. When people believe that they have absolute knowledge, with no test in reality, this is how they behave. This is what men do when they aspire to the knowledge of gods.

“Man’s capacity to do things has almost always run ahead of his ability to decide whether or not he should do them”

“Science is a very human form of knowledge. We are always at the brink of the known; we always feel forward for what is to be hoped. Every judgment in science stands on the edge of error and is personal. Science is a tribute to what we can know although we are fallible. In the end, the words were said by Oliver Cromwell: ‘I beseech you in the bowels of Christ: think it possible you may be mistaken.’ We have to cure ourselves of the itch for absolute knowledge and power. We have to close the distance between the push-button order and the human act. We have to touch people.” Wearing a suit and dress shoes, he steps into the pond, reaches down and pulls up a clump – not merely mud, of course, but at a molecular level some of those flushed ashes from three decades before too.

Perhaps even more striking, if much less well-remembered, is something he said during his Parkinson interview. “The most awful thing about Auschwitz was that the people who’d been killed in the gas ovens, they were just dead. They were the fortunate ones. But the people who shoved another lot of people into the gas ovens the next day, they were like characters out of Dante’s Inferno, living an endless hell because they had lost all sense of human feeling and were going to repeat tomorrow the unutterable bestiality they had practised today.”

It was an extraordinary sentiment for anyone to utter, let alone one who had lost family members in the death camps: but it is also one of the truest and most compassionate things ever said. This was Bronowski at his finest, brain and heart in perfect synchronicity, intellectual and emotional commitments working together, a multitude in one man: the most human of humans showing us what that word, both as adjective and noun, really means.

Jacob Bronowski,
18 January 1908 – 22 August 1974

Boris Starling is an award-winning author, screenwriter and journalist. He created the “Messiah” series which ran for five seasons on BBC1

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October 2023, People, reputations

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