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Monday, 21 March 2016

The Ascent of Man

Man is a singular creature. He has a set of gifts which make him unique among the animals: so that, unlike them, he is not a figure in the landscape – he is a shaper of the landscape.

Jacob Bronowski
Everyone needs at least one role model to inspire them: probably more – different role models for different roles. One of mine came in the unlikely shape of a little man with glasses who dressed like my grandfather and had trouble pronouncing his ‘r’s.

How could anyone be so clever? How did Jacob Bronowski’s life come to be filled with such grand ideas while mine was littered with the tedious transactions of budgets and profit margins? Why was his world populated by brilliant minds while I shared mine with dreary accountants and businessmen? Why couldn’t I shape the landscape rather than being just a figure within it? I wanted to be an omniscient polymath too.

I missed most of Bronowski’s momentous thirteen-part BBC television series The Ascent of Man when it was first broadcast on Saturday evenings between April and July, 1973. I would have been out at the pub. Even when it was repeated at the end of that year, twice a week on both Thursdays and Sundays, I doubt I caught it all. But it affected me profoundly.

Jacob Bronowski: The Ascent of Man
Bronowski was passionate and mesmerising, with fascinating hand gestures. He spoke straight to the camera in precise sentences for minutes at a time without background music, rapid cuts or unnecessary images. Yet he held your attention. He gave us a warm, intelligent, gimmick-free exploration of science and humanity. It was unsettling that a single individual could be so knowledgeable about so many varied subjects, from architecture to evolutionary biology, from poetry to relativity. When he appeared on other programmes, such as Parkinson, you realised he was not reading a script. The breadth of his knowledge and understanding were genuine. 

I bought the book. I read it, and then read it again. I knew all thirteen chapters. Turning through the pages now brings back so many fascinating things: the flying buttresses of Rheims Cathedral where the building hangs like a cage from the arched roof; the Peruvian city of Macchu Picchu; a demonstration of the Pythagorean proof in the sand by drawing real squares on the hypotenuse and the other two sides; the coloured shafts of the spectrum that beamed out of Isaac Newton’s “Triangular glass-Prisme”; Gregor Mendel choosing to test for seven differences between peas when he could not have known that the pea had just seven chromosomes; the surreal massive model head, several metres across, that was detectable by a radar scanner while the real man standing beside remained invisible to its long electromagnetic wavelength.

Of course the answer to the riddle of Bronowski’s erudition, as he himself might have said rhetorically, is that the man was a genius. When the television series was repeated again in 1975, I saw every episode, and something else then struck me. It was that Bronowski’s journey through science was personal and autobiographical. He recalled his own moment of revelation around 1950 when he was working on a mathematical model of the teeth of an Australopithecus baby, the Taung skull, to discriminate them from the teeth of apes, when, “... having spent a lifetime doing abstract mathematics about the shapes of things,” he said I “... suddenly saw my knowledge reach back two million years and shine a searchlight into the history of man.” From that moment his commitment moved from the abstract to the human.

He was able to talk about periods in his career when he had collaborated with other people of genius. He had known Einstein, Daniel Lehrman, James Watson, Leo Szilard and John von Neumann. He spoke of them with fondness and enthusiasm.

He remembered Einstein’s lack of materialism in lecturing at Cambridge in an old sweater and carpet slippers with no socks. He talked of afternoons spent with Leo Szilard at the Salk Institute in California, and recounted a tale about the moment when, in a mental flash, Szilard conceived the idea of the nuclear reactor. He had stopped at a red light, and before the light had turned green had realised that if you hit an atom with one neutron, and it broke up to release two, then you would have a chain reaction. The only improbable part of the story, said Bronowski, is that “I never knew Szilard to stop for a red light.”

Bronowski described John von Neumann, the founder of game theory and computing science, as “the cleverest man I ever knew,” and “a genius, in the sense that a genius is a man who has two great ideas.” He shared an anecdote of how, during the war, after they had been discussing a particularly difficult nuclear problem, he had telephoned von Neumann early the next morning to tell him he was right, and von Neumann complained that he only wanted to be telephoned early in the morning to be told when he was wrong.

This anecdote served to illustrate how von Neumann was in love with what Bronowski called “the aristocracy of the intellect”, with which he fundamentally disagreed and considered dangerous. What we need, he argued, is “democracy of the intellect”, where knowledge sits with people who have no ambition to control others. Elsewhere, in what is perhaps the most often repeated sequence from the series when he walks into the pond at Auschwitz crematorium and scoops up the mud of human remains, he talks of the dogma and arrogance that comes from a false belief in absolute knowledge. He talks about the devastation of Hiroshima. It was a moral and ethical lesson that all knowledge is imperfect. Bronowski would surely have been dismayed by the Monty Python quip that he knew everything.

Even today, despite subsequent developments in computing, neural imaging, molecular biology, robotics, and so on, his book and series remain an exemplar of intelligent broadcasting. I was in awe and in envy. His intellect ranged across areas as diverse as literature, poetry, art, architecture, chess, mathematics, nuclear physics and biology, and yet he retained a deep sense of humility.

It was unsettling. From that time I wanted to embark upon my own version of his personal journey, starting by going to university. It felt a failing not to have been. I was drawn towards the ideas Bronowski had talked about: the human sciences, cultural evolution, psychology, sociology and anthropology. I had no idea where it might lead except that it would be a step in the right direction. At twenty-four, without university entrance qualifications, when it was not easy to get in, when completing a degree was just as difficult, it seemed a mountain to climb, but I knew I had to try.

* Use of the image of Jacob Bronowski and the cover of ‘The Ascent of Man’ is believed to constitute fair use.


  1. A lovely post - I've never read that book, but I seem to remember it being on my parents bookshelf and its long been in the back of my mind to get it.

    1. Would be a strong contender for my Desert Island book, which would put me alongside actress Stephanie Beacham and geneticist Sir Paul Nurse.


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