Happy Birthday Jacob Bronowski

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[Update: Oops! Bronowski’s birthday is Jan. 18, not Jan. 8. I had it written down correctly on my calendar, but stupidly didn’t consult my calendar on the morning of the 8th when I began writing this post. Lesson: don’t rely on memory alone! But in any case, happy birthday, Dr. Bronowski!]

On this day in 1908, Jacob Bronowski was born in Lodz, Poland. By the time he died in 1974, the world had changed so drastically as to be virtually unrecognizable. Amazingly, Bronowski was on the scene for a great many of the twentieth century’s most drastic changes, both in art and in science.

When he was very young, the family moved to Germany for business reasons, only to be trapped during World War I. After that, the family escaped rising anti-Semitism by fleeing to London, where Bronowski arrived at the age of 13 knowing, he later said, only two words of English: “Good morning.” But he did well in school, in both literature and mathematics, and won a scholarship to Cambridge.

As a college student, he was close friends with revolutionary new poets like William Empson with whom he published the student poetry magazine Experiment. Later, he would live with Samuel Beckett in a Paris apartment—and would co-edit with him A European Caravan, Beckett’s first published book. He was briefly friends with Robert Graves, author of I, Claudius (which Bronowski’s girlfriend, Eirlys Roberts, fact-checked). After Bronowski challenged Graves to a poetry-writing competition, they had a falling out, and Graves published a derisive poem about his ambitious nature, entitled “Dream of a Climber.”

Watch how this climber raises his own ladder From earth to heaven, and not in a night. … He pauses, poses for his camera-man: ‘Well-known Climber About to Ascend.’

As a Polish Jew, Bronowski was particularly sensitive to the goings on in 1930s Germany, and published articles warning of the dangers presented by the Nazis. Nazism, he warned, was being spearheaded by the intellectual leaders of Germany, not by rowdies on the lunatic fringe. “[N]ationalist solidarity,” he explained in 1933, “has had a profound effect upon the generation which has grown up since the [first world] war, as it did upon the generation which went into the war.… The effect has not been one merely of nationalism. It has been also a morbid reverence for the donnish and faded elegance of the pre-war court—and for its equally donnish authority. And it has been a credulity, even a demand, for the academic doctinairism of Hitler’s Aryan or Blutsgefühl twaddle. These now govern Germany.” But, English universities had their own racial balancing programs, and as a result Bronowski was told that his being a Jew barred him from teaching at Cambridge. He left England for Paris, but returned when World War II broke out.

As a mathematician, he helped plan bombing raids, working for the scientist Solly Zuckerman. He and Zuckerman despised each other—Zuckerman later claimed that Bronowski never did important work, but simply came up with clever new ways of doing things that had already been done by perfectly adequate methods. Fittingly, Bronowski’s most important scientific work—a mathematical analysis of the shape of some ancient teeth found in South Africa, which was published in the November 3, 1951 issue of Nature—refuted Zuckerman’s argument (published in the April 22, 1950 issue) that the teeth could not have come from Australopithecus. Meanwhile, as he was working for the war effort, Bronowski met a young sculptress named Rita Coblenz, for whom he became a model. Bored while standing for hours in the nude, Bronowski picked up a book of William Blake’s poetry. From that point on, Bronowski became a devotee of Blake, arguing that his works were not mystical ramblings as long believed, but were a clever and important commentary on the rise of the scientific and industrial age. Bronowski ended up writing an important book about Blake (later revised into William Blake And The Age of Revolution) and to edit a volume of his poetry. Bronowski’s interest made Blake a popular figure for scientists of the day. Meanwhile, Bronowski and Rita married. They would have three daughters, the eldest of whom, Lisa Jardine, is now a popular writer on the history of art and science and an Honorary Fellow of King’s College, Cambridge

World War II was the turning point in Bronowski’s life just as it was the turning point of the twentieth century. He was chosen to lead the English team sent to Nagasaki and Hiroshima to study the effects of the atomic bomb. He was horrified by the spectacle, and spent the rest of his professional career meditating on the responsibilities of scientists in the atomic age. “On a fine November day in 1945,” he recalled,

I was landed on an airstrip in southern Japan. From there a jeep was to take me over the mountains to join a ship which lay in Nagasaki Harbor.… I did not know that we had left the open country until unexpectedly I heard the ship’s loudspeakers broadcasting dance music. Then suddenly I was aware that we were already at the center of damage in Nagasaki. The shadows behind me were the skeletons of the Mitsubishi factory buildings, pushed backwards and sideways as if by a giant hand.… I had blundered into this desolate landscape as instantly as one might wake among the craters of the moon. The moment of recognition when I realized that I was already in Nagasaki is present to me as I write, as vividly as when I lived it.… I can even remember the tune that was coming from the ship. It was a dance tune which had been popular in 1945, and it was called “Is You Is Or Is You Ain’t Ma Baby?”

In this “universal moment,” Bronowski realized the tremendous new danger and promise that modern science now held for humanity. “Civilization,” he wrote, looks at “the ashy desolation which the bomb made,” and asks, “‘Is You Is Or Is You Ain’t Ma Baby?’” The responsibility of scientists and intellectuals in this new age would become a major theme of the writings of such people as C.P. Snow, J. Robert Oppenheimer, and most of all, Bronowski’s best friend, Leo Szilard. Like Szilard, Bronowski would leave the physical sciences in the years after 1945, and begin studying biology instead. “I had not been long back from Hiroshima when I heard someone say, in Szilard’s presence, that it was the tragedy of scientists that their discoveries were used for destruction,” he wrote. “Szilard replied, as he more than anyone else had the right to reply, that it was not the tragedy of scientists; ‘it is the tragedy of mankind.’”

Bronowski first came to the attention of the general public when he gave a radio address about the atomic bomb; the BBC had planned to broadcast the “Crossroads” bomb test live, but radio interference from the explosion made that impossible, and Bronowski’s speech “Mankind At The Crossroads” was broadcast instead. From that point on, he became a popular media figure, a star, in fact, whose radio and television shows, such as Insight and The Brains Trust, explained modern science to the general audience. He was equally popular with lay audiences as with intellectuals—his name even turns up in a Monty Python sketch.

But he was more than a popularizer. As a philosopher of science, Bronowski wrote about the thinking process of science, and especially about the political implications of scientific thinking. In one of his most important works, Science And Human Values, Bronowski elaborates on a theme that was popular with Leo Szilard, Karl Popper, and others: that liberalism (in the European sense of that term, not the American) was a discovery process, and that science was a model of this process in action. Rejecting the so-called “naturalistic fallacy,” Bronowski argued that the scientific method did have moral and political implications, which required tolerance and individual rights. And, in addition to his philosophical work, Bronowski continued to be fascinated with art and poetry. He published an award winning play, The Face of Violence, and a libretto for an opera called My Brother Is Dead. The composer Michael Tippet even based an oratorio, The Mask of Time, on Bronowski’s writings.

His most famous work, however, was the thirteen-part BBC miniseries on the history of science, The Ascent of Man. (Although the title is a take on Darwin’s The Descent of Man, one cannot help but wonder if Graves’ derisive poem was in the back of his mind as well.) Unlike its predecessor—Civilisation by Kenneth Clark—Bronowski’s thirteen-hour series was not scripted, but only outlined. In many episodes—particularly the last—the cameraman simply pointed the camera at him, and allowed him to speak extemporaneously. The result was a fascinating and endlessly rewarding classic of science television.

In addition to his television work, Bronowski was a leading hand in the founding of the Salk Institute in San Diego. He persuaded Szilard to join the institute, and later Francis Crick, who inherited Bronowski’s office. Bronowski was particularly keen on emphasizing the arts as well as science at the Institute, and was instrumental in selecting the famous architect Louis Khan to design the buildings. And then there was his scientific interests. Bronowski’s primary focus in anthropology was in what he called “human specificity”: seeking the qualities that made human beings so special. Aside from the scientific interest, he hoped as a philosopher that this would unearth the foundation for a universal moral and political theory that would reconcile cultures that were violently at odds with one another. In an interview shortly before his death, Bronowski explained why evolution was such a profound idea. Does not evolution simply reduce human nature to an accident, the interviewer asked?

On the contrary, [Bronowski answered] it is those who appeal to God and special creation who reduce everything to accident. They assign to man a unique status on the ground that there was some act of special creation which made the world the way it is. But that explains nothing, because it would explain everything; it is an explanation for any conceivable world. If we had the color vision of the bee combined with the neck of the giraffe and the feet of the elephant, that would equally be explained by the “theory” of special creation.

Yet we do not have those features, and we do not believe they are biologically compatible. Therefore, our criterion of what is compatible sets a limitation on an acceptable explanation. That is why I say that to call in a special or miraculous act of creation reduces every conceivable world to accident.

Unfortunately, Bronowski died very shortly after The Ascent of Man was completed, and today is little remembered by American audiences. But he left behind a body of brilliant, exciting, eloquent testaments to the wonders and dangers and responsibilities of science today. In the final moments of The Ascent, Bronowski paused to reflect on the dangers of ignorance and superstition in the modern world, in words that everyone at the Thumb would appreciate, I think.

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. You cannot possibly maintain that informed integrity if you let other people run the world for you while you yourself continue to live out of a ragbag of morals that come from past beliefs. That is really crucial today.… [F]ifty years from now, if an understanding of man’s origins, his evolution, his history, his progress, is not the commonplace of the schoolbooks, we shall not exist. The commonplace of the schoolbooks of tomorrow is the adventure of today, and that is what we are engaged in.

And I am infinitely saddened to find myself suddenly surrounded in the west by a sense of terrible loss of nerve, a retreat from knowledge into—into what? Into Zen Buddhism; into falsely profound questions about, Are we not really just animals at bottom; into extra-sensory perception and mystery. They do not lie along the line of what we are now able to know if we devote ourselves to it: an understanding of man himself. We are nature’s unique experiment to make the rational intelligence prove itself sounder than the reflex. Knowledge is our destiny. Self-knowledge, at last bringing together the experience of the arts and the explanations of science, waits ahead of us.

I wrote more about Bronowski in the December 2002 issue of Liberty and in this Thumb post from a while ago.

(Me in Bronowski’s home in 1999)

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There's a fine testimonial to Jacob Bronowski at the Thumb. I recall watching every episode of his series, The Ascent of Man, way back in high school—he was much better than Sagan, I thought. Excellent stuff, and here's a great quote fr... Read More


Thank you so much for posting the biography of Jacob Bronowski. As a graduate student working on light scattering from small particles in the U.K. in the early fifties I was fortunate enough to attend a conference on particle size measurement which was chaired by Bronowski. I was greatly impressed by his ability at the end of each session to sum up the contents of many diverse papers. My family and I together watched the “Ascent of Man” TV series in the 70’s, and “Dr. Bronowski” became an authority figure for my then precocious young daughter.

I’ve read that much or all of Brownowski’s narration for The Ascent of Man was delivered extemporaneously. By all accounts he was an astonishing person. Thanks, Timothy.

Thanks for that biography: Bronowski was a name I knew, but I knew almost nothing about him. I feel we’ve lost something since the 60s: the language in the quotes you give are wonderful, but there were several broadcasters who could be as eloquent (A.J.P. Taylor, John Arlott and Alistair Cooke immediately spring to mind).

Ah, The Ascent of Man (and Civilisation) is available on DVD: guess what’s been added to my Amazon wish list.

I was only 3 when The Ascent of Man was broadcast, so it was on after my bedtime. I had to wait a few years before I was old enough to stay up and watch stuff like this. All I saw was a series by the bureaucrat who commissioned The Ascent of Man.


I have read most of Bronowski’s works and avidly followed his Ascent of Man series when I was in graduate school. I was fairly young when WWII ended, but I still remember some of the horrors of that war. Having later participated as a submariner in the cold war activities in the west and northern Pacific, I became even more aware of the dangers we humans impose upon ourselves.

Bronowski had a major influence on my decision to avoid doing any scientific work that would lead to weapons development or any kind of destruction of life on this planet. As you may remember, during the Cold War there was a lot of pressure on scientists (Ph.D. physicists in particular) to do military work. It was very difficult to avoid. There was lots of money there. If you were hired by a corporation, the management would often switch its scientific staff to military contracts even though they were hired to do something else. I was not completely successful in my ideal of totally avoiding military research, but Bronowski was always on my mind in these circumstances, and at least I was able to minimize my involvement to only peripheral matters involving monitoring. He is still on of my heros.

Hey, if it’s on Amazon, post a link. I went looking, and couldn’t find any DVDs of the series – their idiot search engine kept substituting “agent man” for “ascent of man” and returning movies about spies.

The Ascent is available on DVD here: http://www.amazon.co.uk/exec/obidos[…]4439-2993434. But note that it is formatted for European DVD players. I don’t know enough about DVD players to know whether they would work in American players. I still just use my VHS tapes when I want to re-watch the series.

The Ascent was really Bronowski’s masterpiece–bringing together in a single work all of the major themes of his life’s writing. It’s brilliant, comprehensive, and grand. I cannot recommend it highly enough. Be forewarned, however, that it does contain several historical and scientific errors. These do not detract from the overall brilliance of the work, in my opinion, but not everything Bronowski says can be relied upon. (For example, his story about Hegel denying that there could be any more planets is probably apocryphal, and the importance he attaches to the idea that humans are the only creatures that mate face to face is discredited in Dawkins’ Climbing Mount Improbable.)

The Ascent of Man and Civilization are both only available on Region 2 DVD, as far as I can see, but does anyone buy a DVD player that can’t have its region coding changed from the handset (by backdoor codes)? Try typing your DVD player part number into Google and see what comes up. However, I would expect them to be PAL encoded. Most modern European TV sets are bilingual but I don’t know the US market.

Those two boxed sets were the first I bought after buying my DVD player. This is when I discovered just how my friends could “lose” an entire weekend in one go.

The scene in the concentration camp where he just walks into the water brought a lump to my throat when I saw it. Truly haunting…

Thank you for a fine tribute to a great man. As one whose only claim to fame is that I share a birthday with both he and Wallace, I can well remember being glued to the television for every episode of Ascent. In my view, it is still unmatched as a TV science documentary except - possibly - for Life On Earth. We badly need more with his genius for communicating the wonders of the human scientific enterprise.

Timothy Sandefur Wrote:

The Ascent is available on DVD here: http://www.amazon.co.uk/exec/obidos/ASIN/B000772.… But note that it is formatted for European DVD players. I don’t know enough about DVD players to know whether they would work in American players.

My apologies for forgetting to post the link. As far as I’m aware, you would need a multi-region DVD player, or a European DVD player, to be able to play the DVDs. I searched the BBC website and couldn’t find much, except for this on Radio 4. Apparently Bronowski was fronting a TV programme about science on Friday evenings. On one programme they discussed left-handedness, and asked viewers to send in some postcards answering some questions. The radio programme is the story of what happened. I had to listen to it before I posted this (click on Listen Live, and scroll down). The guy from Swansea is, um, amusing. Radio 4 at its eclectic best.


Bob O’H–thanks so much for the BBC link! I am planning on (someday, if I ever find the time) writing a biography of Bronowski, and things like this are wonderfully helpful.

Incidentally, if any readers have any personal stories–meeting Bronowski or anything like that, please let me know. I’d love to hear more.

Thank you very very much for this remembrance of Jacob Bronowski. I feel like I was “raised” on Bronowski - growing up in the 60’s and early 70’s. He was inspirational in so many ways…& deserves a place in our memories.

If you google “Ascent of Man BBC/Time Life” you’ll find a couple of places that ship the DVD’s only to the U.S., so presumeably their DVD’s will work here in our players.

I saw the series when I was in college. Looked forward to every episode. Each one affected be a lot.

I just saw Ascent of Man DVDs encoded for region 4 in a major Australian chain (JB HiFi)

I recall “Ascent” very fondly as well, except for two particularly excellent “Nova” programs it was the best science program of my teens, by far.

What amazes, and finally angers, me about the not-knowingly dishonest I.D. crowd (and fundamentalists of all types, generally) is how determined they are to remain ignorant (there’s no excuse to be made in the U.S., etc.) and afraid of the big, bad, beautiful Universe, Life, and (sorry, not Everything) the odd gift/curse/simple fact of what humans call consciousness. Science at its best for me isn’t something that “produces benefits” like some business, but something that allows humans to collectively explore AND DESCRIBE the Universe we collectively inhabit. We can’t, strictly speaking, all be scientists, and there ARE many, many other things humans can do in being human - in the best sense. Still, science provides a sort of bedrock that proves to anyone willing to do the study the limit of what we know (despite the fact that “everything we know is wrong”). Bronowski showed this in “Ascent” wonderfully: that being human is a process, a story, that “ascends” on many levels.

Thanks for the splendid biography!

The series was turned into a book of the same name. It’s a big book with lotsa pictures. My copy is Little, Brown and Company, Boston/Toronto, 1974. There was also at least 1 paperback edition by Time Warner in 1991. I don’t think either edition is in print any more, but you can get used copies from ABEBooks.com for anywhere between $1 and $49 plus typically $3 shipping.

I saw the entire series when it came out, but you can read the book a lot faster.

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I feel suddenly exonerated. As an undergraduate in the 70’s I was surprised at how my history of science and philosophy professors looked down on “The Ascent of Man” and Bronowski. I realized later that this was part of the phenomenon of ridiculing any popularizer of science. That, along with one chapter from Ascent, “Knowledge and Certainty”, for me embodies all that is wrong and ignorant about science education. I have never seen anything, nothing, like “Knowledge and Certainty”. It is an absolutely essential tool for getting students to understand what science is. That science has severe limits. That it is a very human, creative, process. That it does not deal in absolutes. That when it is perverted into doctrines of absolutes horrible things happen. If the general public understood what Bronowski was trying to get across in that one show creationists would have a much more difficult time getting any attention.

In college, I read Bronowski’s book, co-authored by Bruce Mazlish, The Western Intellectual Tradition. It’s magnificent and available used via Amazon for under $3.00.

With respect to The Ascent of Man, I cannot remember being moved more by any show than I was when watching the last installment. At the end of the episode, kneeling in a pond outside a concentration camp, Bronowski put his hands in the mud which contained the residue of ashes from inmates, many of which were his relatives. The theme of that episode was the impossibility of certainty.

A date to note on the digital calendar: 8 January 2008 the one-hundredth anniversary of the birth of J.B.

The Ascent of Man: A breathtaking accomplishment.

Having just now acquired the series on DVD from ambrosevideo.com, I recall now the intellectual ferment and unease that it engendered when first I saw some of the episodes. I’m of a somewhat different frame of mind nowadays, and am thoroughly entranced as I work through the series.

Stuart Levine Wrote:

…I cannot remember being moved more by any show than I was when watching the last installment…

Actually, “Knowledge or Certainty” was number 11 of 13. It is entirely reasonable for someone to remember that as the last of the series, though. It’s one of the most powerful presentations I can remember seeing in the last fifty years or so. For the net.frivolous, there are at least a dozen epic .sig quotes.

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