(18 January 1908 – 22 August 1974)
Jacob Bronowski was a humanist, polymath and all round Renaissance man.
He was born in Poland in 1908 to Jewish parents who moved to Germany during the first World War and then on to England in 1920.
Bronowski won a scholarship to study Mathematics at Cambridge but was also involved with editing a literary periodical called Experiment. This was an early sign that he would be one of the extraordinary few thinkers to straddle the divide between science and humanities – the ‘two cultures’ famously discussed by C.P. Snow in his 1959 lecture and paving the way to the ‘third culture (scientists who are directly communicating their new, sometimes provocative, ideas to the general public).
Bronowski’s interests ranged widely, from biology to poetry and from chess to Humanism, his commitment to which is evidenced in the following excerpt written in October 1968:
The notion that a man shall judge for himself what he is told, sifting the evidence and weighing the conclusions, is of course implicit in the outlook of science. But it begins before that as a positive and active constituent of humanism. For evidently the notion implies not only that man is free to judge, but that he is able to judge. This is an assertion of confidence which goes back to a contemporary of Socrates, and claims (as Plato quotes him) that “man is the measure of all things”. In humanism, man is all things: he is both the expression and the master of the creation.
The Ascent of Man
Jacob Bronowski is best remembered for The Ascent of Man, a thirteen part TV series produced by the BBC in 1973, in which he explored the history of science and technology. It is said that it was this seminal TV series which inspired the late great American astronomer Carl Sagan to make his own documentary series, Cosmos, which also inspired a generation of humanists.
Contrary to David Hume, Bronowski championed the idea that the ethical ‘ought’ could be derived from the scientific exploration of what ‘is’ . A particularly poignant and moving part of the series was filmed at the Auschwitz concentration camp and begins with the following:
It’s said that science will dehumanize 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.
Bronowski taught mathematics at the University College Hull from 1934 to 1942. The economist Eric Roll who worked with Bronowski in Hull said of him:
He was … a warm and vibrant human being. Every encounter with him was a powerful tonic which left one feeling intellectually and emotionally stimulated and enhanced. He did not, however, suffer fools gladly and could be bitingly sardonic about human folly or about the glaring discrepancies so often to be found between public acclaim and true worth. But to his friends he was kind and affectionate, a companion whose gaiety and wit counterbalanced his serious approach to life.
Bronowski died in New York in 1974, a year after the completion of The Ascent of Man. He is buried in Highgate Cemetery, London.