Happy Birthday Jacob Bronowski

[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)