In Pursuit of Jacob Bronowski

more than a year ago

Best known as the presenter of the BBC’s genuinely groundbreaking 1973 documentary series The Ascent of Man (and the best-selling book which accompanied the series), Jacob Bronowski’s central belief was that the pursuit of knowledge and the production of art for art’s sake were what fundamentally made human beings human. He argued that once man thinks he knows everything, then evil takes hold.

Unlike many of his contemporaries, Bronowski believed in bringing knowledge of the most complicated science to the masses, something he achieved via a remarkable gift of making the complex appear infinitely simple. That was his gift. Michael Parkinson - who interviewed Bronowski in 1973 - would later recall that the meeting had been perhaps the most rewarding and fascinating of his long career.

Bronowski - whose friends called him Bruno - finds himself the subject of a major feature in this guide because the man was born right here, in Łódź - then part of the Russian Empire - in 1908. His family were comfortably wealthy haberdashery traders, and his father travelled frequently to England. When the First World War broke out Bronowski’s family ironically fled first to Germany, before settling in England only in 1920. Speaking no English he was nevertheless given a place at the Central Foundation School in London, after which he won a scholarship to Jesus College, Cambridge.

While mathematics was his first love, Bronowski was drawn towards poetry in his early years at Cambridge, and it was while here that he began editing a poetry journal, Experiment. He wrote poetry too, and a promising career beckoned. Yet in the end - though he wrote poetry (when he had the time) until shortly before his death - Bronowski remained faithful to mathematics, staying on at Jesus College until 1935, when he took his doctorate in geometry. Like many idealists of the era Bronowski - who had spent time in Majorca during previous summers - was fascinated by the Spanish Civil War, but never volunteered. He did publish poetry on the subject, however, at war’s end in 1939. By this time he had become an English citizen, and was a research fellow at University College, Hull. He married in 1941, and was called up in 1942, spending most of the war as a researcher, with specific interest in the economic effects of bombing, applying theoretical mathematics to real situations. It was while still serving in the army - late in 1945 - that he visited Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a trip that would mark him for life.


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Over a year ago
Perfect reading both this essay and Ascent of Man the book that 'shouted' at me in a forgotten bookshop in Cheltenham some time ago. I didn't know that Bronowski was born in Lodz somehow 'my town' either )
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