asher63 (asher63) wrote,
asher63
asher63

TAOM - General notes on Bronowski's 'The Ascent of Man'.

'And yet, fifty years from now, if an understanding of man's origins, his evolution, his history, his progress is not the commonplace of the schoolbooks, we shall not exist.'
- J. Brownowski, The Ascent of Man (1973)

I had the good fortune to catch the BBC documentary series on public television when it first aired in 1972; I must have been 9 years old at the time. I'm also fortunate to still own a copy of the original hardcover book, which was among the books I inherited from my parents. Jacob Bronowski's classic history of science seems to me as timely now as it was then. (Bronowski died the following year.)

So, my overall impressions.

First, the series is absolutely riveting. There simply are no dull parts. Personally I find Bronowski captivating to watch. The book is attractively bound and typeset, and lavishly illustrated with color stills from the television production. (Apparently the 2011 paperback release lacks these.) The text of the book follows the script of the video closely, but not exactly: there are some passages in the book that expound a subject more fully, or quote a literary source at more length, than the video production.

The 13-part series traces the history of science in roughly, but not strictly, chronological order - from the development of agriculture, to metallurgy, astronomy, the industrial revolution, evolution, genetics, game theory. Bronowski, himself a mathematician by training who later developed an interest in the life sciences, at several points emphasizes the difference between simple computation (or arithmetic) and the process of actually reasoning about numbers - true mathematics.

Patterns in nature are a recurring theme: the regularity of the astronomical cycles, the internal structure of substances (such as wood, stone, or steel), the symmetry of a geometric pattern, the structure of the atom, the double helix of DNA and the intrinsic "handedness" of organic molecules.

One absence that struck me as interesting - especially for a work produced in the early 1970s - is the almost complete lack of any mention of the space exploration program. There is a wry reference to Victorian-era entertainment machines as "as pointless and high-spirited as getting to the moon." And that's it! No mention of Sputnik, no Apollo. I'm sure Dr. Bronowski felt these were important achievements, but they were not what 'The Ascent of Man' was about for Bronowski.

Clearly, many things have changed since 1973, in science and elsewhere. Recent advances in genetics and other sciences have modified our understanding of prehistoric human migrations, for example.

From the title on, Bronowski uses the words "man" and "men" unselfconsciously and unapologetically. Himself a Polish-born Jew, he speaks with affection about his adopted homeland of England, and about Western civilization generally. He is a lover of literature and often quotes English poetry at length. He's Jewish and nerdy, but masculine - not a Woody Allen type.

At nearly 50 years since its production, 'The Ascent of Man' is as fresh and captivating as ever. (It got uniformly positive comments in the Guardian not long ago.) There's a digitally remastered DVD set available, and the 2011 paperback edition with a new foreword by Richard Dawkins. And there's a forthcoming biography of Jacob Bronowski, set to be released this summer.

Jacob Bronowski's daughter, Lisa Jardine (1944 - 2015), carried on the tradition and was the author of many books on history, science, and culture, including 'Ingenious Pursuits: Building the Scientific Revolution'.
Tags: books, taom
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