On August 22, 1974, Jacob Bronowski, the versatile mathematician, scientist and writer whose book and BBC-TV series “The Ascent of Man” chronicled the intellectual development of the human species, died, at the age of 66.
Bronowski had a multidisciplinary approach to life and work, declaring at one point that he had grown up to be “indifferent to the distinction between literature and science, which in my teens were simply two languages for experience that I learned together.” He continued to write poetry and drama to the end of his life, even as he made a career for himself as a professional scientist and acclaimed explainer of science to the masses.
Jacob Bronowski was born in Lodz, Poland, on January 18, 1908, the son of Abram and Celia Bronowski. During World War I, the family relocated to Germany, and then, in 1920, moved to London. There his father owned a haberdashery, and traded with companies in Poland.
Although he later said he knew only two words of English at the time of his arrival, Bronowski gained admission to the prestigious Central Foundation Boys School, and in 1927, he began studying mathematics at Jesus College, Cambridge, as a scholarship student.
Statistical bombing patterns
In 1930, Bronowski attained the status of “senior wrangler,” making him the highest-scoring undergraduate mathematics student in the university. No less impressive is that he also played chess competitively, was also literary editor of the university’s Granta magazine (precursor to today’s Granta), and also co-founded a new, avant-garde student literary journal.
Bronowski completed a Ph.D. in mathematics at Cambridge in 1933, a period when he was friends with such writers as Samuel Beckett, Robert Graves and Laura Riding (though he fell out with the last two). From 1934 to 1942, he taught math at the University College of Hull, publishing his first book, “The Poet’s Defense,” about the connection between poetry and mathematics, in 1939.
Although Britain’s MI5 began to keep tabs on Bronowski as a suspected radical and communist (he was neither) in 1939, this did not prevent him from working for the RAF Bomber Command during World War II, applying his expertise in statistics to devising bombing strategies.
Following the war, he was sent to Japan to examine the havoc wreaked on Hiroshima and Nagasaki by having been the targets of atomic bombs. Following that experience, he decided he would do no more military work. He soon moved into the field of biology.
Finding the human precursor
In 1950, Bronowski was asked to study the remains of the “Taung Child,” a two million-year-old skull found in South Africa, whose brain was ape-like in size, but whose teeth resembled those of a human. Using statistics, he concluded, in the face of significant opposition from other experts, that the skull was that of a precursor to humans, something of a “missing link.”
Bronowski’s popularity on the BBC Radio quiz show “The Brains Trust,” and his books on science and culture, led to his being approached by the BBC’s David Attenborough to create “The Ascent of Man.” In its 13 parts, Bronowski, speaking without a script, travels the world to trace the development of human civilization through the development of science.
In Part 11, Bronowski looks at the vast destruction of World War II, and places the blame on humans, not science. Photographed outside a crematorium at Auschwitz, where, he confesses, he lost many family members, he dips his hand into a pond, into which “were flushed the ashes of some four million people.” That, he says, “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.”
Obviously moved by the setting, Bronowski warns against the dangers of “the itch for absolute knowledge and power,” by quoting Oliver Cromwell, “I beseech you in the bowels of Christ: Think it possible you may be mistaken."
Bronowski was married to the former Rita Coblenz; they had four daughters. He died not long after the airing of “The Ascent of Man,” of a heart attack, on this day in 1974.