Knowledge, for Bronowski, was the great pursuit of humanity; he mutually existed within the sciences and the artsBryan Wright / Flickr

The BBC’s collection of science documentaries has proven to be God’s gift to humanity. Well, at least David Attenborough’s gift, though the two terms are, of course, interchangeable. Yet, science documentaries were not always of the quality and scope that we expect when tuning in to BBC Four today. It is possible to trace the evolution of the form to the epic journey through the history of science that was The Ascent of Man. Broadcast 50 years ago, Cambridge alumnus Jacob Bronowski broke new ground on what a documentary could be. It may no longer be at the cutting edge of modern science, but through his detail and visible passion, Bronowski changed public engagement with science.

Bronowski’s own life makes for a wonderful and rich reading. Born in Poland in 1908, he spent his early years moving across a Europe torn apart by WW1. Once his family settled in Britain in 1920, he fell in love with the pursuit of knowledge. He learnt English through his engagement with both literature and science: As he memorably remarked in a 1973 interview, he “learnt English, mathematics, chemistry all at the same time”. In English, he may learn about the word “water” while learning the same substance is “H2O” in chemistry. According to the professor, this process means: “You suddenly realise that all science, all mathematics is a language for expressing the relations in nature in a different way, and that was a marvellous experience.” This would go on to inform the rest of his career.

“Through his detail and visible passion, Bronowski changed public engagement with science”

Alongside his studies in Mathematics at Jesus College, Bronowski was the co-editor of the avant-garde magazine Experiment with the later literary critic William Empson, who had also initially studied mathematics at Magdalene. Bronowski also competed in the ancient rivalry between Oxford and Cambridge, though his chosen method was chess as opposed to rowing (showing there is hope for those of us less gifted with physical abilities to still compete against the other place). Unfortunately, it was one of the few times in his life that he did not succeed. His literary endeavours continued throughout his scientific career, editing an edition of the poems of William Blake and meeting an eclectic range of figures from James Joyce to Dylan Thomas who (as we all must wish to) he shared some drinks with.

Bronowski’s public prominence came from his ability to engage in discussion. He was a mainstay of television panels, answering questions on all aspects of science. He knew as much about early hominid teeth as he did the structure of the atom. His notoriety was such that Monty Python parodied him as “knowing everything”. Knowledge, for Bronowski, was the great pursuit of humanity; he mutually existed within the sciences and arts. As he stated: “Being a scientist, and being a poet, being an original person, meant a very questioning, a very rebellious, a very uncomfortable way of life and that’s what makes progress in the human race.”

“He knew as much about early hominid teeth as he did the structure of the atom”

The Ascent of Man was commissioned by David Attenborough after the success of 1969’s Civilisation, a 13-part series presented by Kenneth Clark that aimed – rather modestly – to chart the entire history of western art and culture. Bronowski was perfectly positioned (with his experiences at Cambridge) to lead the science equivalent. Filming over 18 months across the globe, he would improvise the extended monologues he spoke to the camera. His passion guided his eloquence as if hoping to make the viewer just as interested as he was. Neither was his tone patronising or overly simplified. Quoting Niels Bohr, he said: “Every sentence that I utter should be regarded by you no as an assertation, but as a question” – one that any viewer could answer themselves.


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Not everything in The Ascent of Man has stood the test of time. It largely overlooks the contributions of women to the history of science and often follows a conventional canon of known western scientists. Yet, Bronowski knew that his programme was only part of the process that is the accumulation of knowledge. To claim to have provided a definitive history would be to go against his deeply held principle that science should be exploratory and continue to question our assumptions.

Though he died soon after its broadcast, The Ascent of Man remains a landmark documentary that provided the blueprint for future series like Attenborough’s own Life on Earth. Bronowski’s programme also stands as one man’s personal testament to his love of science, art and knowledge as the best qualities of humanity. Cambridge, through its encouragement of Bronowski’s study and its social side of societies and friendships, allowed Bronowski to pursue his passions and make them his life. It is only fitting to end with Bronowski’s own eloquent words: “Science is a very human form of knowledge. We are always at the brink of the known, we always feel forward for what is to be hoped. Every judgment in science stands on the edge of error and is personal. Science is a tribute to what we can know although we are fallible.”