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Jacob Bronowski

Born 18 January 1908 (1908-01-18)
Łódź, Congress Poland, Russian Empire
Died 22 August 1974 (1974-08-23) (aged 66)
East Hampton, New York, U.S.
Residence UK
Nationality Polish-English
Fields Mathematics
Institutions Salk Institute
Alma mater University of Cambridge
Doctoral advisor H. F. Baker
Known for Geometry

Jacob Bronowski (18 January 1908 – 22 August 1974) was a British mathematician and biologist of Polish-Jewish origin. He is best remembered as the presenter and writer of the 1973 BBC television documentary series, The Ascent of Man.


Life and work

Jacob Bronowski was born in Łódź, Congress Poland, Russian Empire in 1908. His family moved to Germany during the First World War, and then to England in 1920. Although, according to Bronowski, he knew only two English words on arriving in Great Britain,[1] he gained admission to the Central Foundation Boys' School in London and went on to study at the University of Cambridge.

As a mathematics student at Jesus College, Cambridge, Bronowski co-edited — with William Empson — the literary periodical Experiment, which first appeared in 1928. Bronowski would pursue this sort of dual activity, in both the mathematical and literary worlds, throughout his professional life. He was also a strong chess player, earning a half-blue while at Cambridge and composing numerous chess problems for the British Chess Magazine between 1926 and 1970.[2] He received a Ph.D. in mathematics in 1935, writing a dissertation in algebraic geometry. From 1934 to 1942 he taught mathematics at the University College of Hull. For a time in the 1930s he lived near Laura Riding and Robert Graves in Majorca.

During the Second World War Bronowski worked in operations research, and afterward became Director of Research for the National Coal Board in the UK. Following his experiences as an official observer of the after-effects of the Nagasaki and Hiroshima bombings, he turned to biology, as did his friend Leo Szilard, to better understand the nature of violence. Bronowski was an associate director of the Salk Institute from 1964.

Jacob Bronowski married Rita Coblentz in 1941.[3] The couple had four children, all daughters, the eldest being the British academic Lisa Jardine and another being the filmmaker Judith Bronowski.

In 1950, Bronowski was given the Taung child's fossilized skull and asked to try, using his statistical skills, to combine a measure of the size of the skull's teeth with their shape in order to discriminate them from the teeth of apes. Work on this turned his interests towards the human biology of humanity's intellectual products.

In 1967 Bronowski delivered the six Silliman Foundation lectures at Yale University and chose as his subject the role of imagination and symbolic language in the progress of scientific knowledge. Transcripts of the lectures were published posthumously in 1978 as The Origins of Knowledge and Imagination and remain in print.

He first became familiar to the British public through appearances on the BBC television version of The Brains Trust in the late 1950s, but is better known for his thirteen part series The Ascent of Man (1973) about the history of science and technology. This was the second in a series of "personal observation" documentaries by the BBC, which also inspired Carl Sagan to make Cosmos in 1980. During the making of The Ascent of Man, Bronowski was interviewed by Michael Parkinson, and Bronowski's description of a visit to Auschwitz — he had lost many family members during the Nazi era — was described by Parkinson as one of his most memorable interviews.

Jacob Bronowski died in 1974 of a heart attack[3] in East Hampton, New York a year after The Ascent of Man was completed, and was buried in the western side of London's Highgate Cemetery, near the entrance.


Jacob Bronowski's grave in Highgate Cemetery, London
  • The Poet's Defence (1939)
  • William Blake: A Man Without a Mask (1943)
  • The Common Sense of Science (1951)
  • The Face of Violence (1954)
  • Science and Human Values. New York: Julian Messner, Inc.. 1956, 1965. 
  • William Blake: The Penguin Poets Series (1958)
  • The Western Intellectual Tradition, From Leonardo to Hegel (1960) - with Bruce Mazlish
  • Biography of an Atom (1963) - with Millicent Selsam
  • Insight (1964)
  • The Identity of Man. Garden City: The Natural History Press. 1965. 
  • Nature and Knowledge: The Philosophy of Contemporary Science (1969)
  • William Blake and the Age of Revolution (1972)
  • The Ascent of Man (1974)
  • A Sense of the Future (1977)
  • Magic Science & Civilization (1978)
  • The Origins of Knowledge and Imagination (1978)
  • The Visionary Eye: Essays in the Arts, Literature and Science (1979) - edited by Piero Ariotti and Rita Bronowski


The Ascent of Man placed sixty-fifth on a list of the 100 Greatest British Television Programmes drawn up by the British Film Institute in 2000 that was voted for by industry professionals.[4] Charlie Brooker praises Bronowski and The Ascent of Man on his BBC Four programme, Charlie Brooker's Screenwipe.[5]


  1. ^ Bronowski, J. (1967). The Common Sense of Science. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press. pp. 8. 
  2. ^ Winter, Edward. "Chess Notes". Retrieved 2008-03-23. 
  3. ^ a b Garson, Sue. "Rita Bronowski - San Diego Jewish Journal". Retrieved 2008-03-23. 
  4. ^ "The BFI TV 100". Retrieved 2009-08-03. 
  5. ^ "Charlie Brookers Screenwipe S1E1P1". Retrieved 2010-02-04. 

External links


Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From Wikiquote

Jacob Bronowski (January 18, 1908August 22, 1974) was a British mathematician, biologist, and science historian of Polish origin. He is remembered in popular culture as the writer and presenter of the influential 1973 BBC television documentary series, The Ascent of Man.



  • These are the moments when the powerful mind or the forceful character feels the ferment of the times, when his thoughts quicken, and when he can inject into the uncertainties of others the creative ideas which will strengthen them with purpose. At such a moment the man who can direct others, in thought or in action, can remake the world.
    • The Common Sense of Science (1951), on the influence of Isaac Newton.
  • I grew 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.
    • From Wakeman, J., 1975: World Authors 1950–1970 (New York: H.W. Wilson), pp. 221–223

Science and Human Values (1956, 1965)

First published as a series of three essays in Universities Quarterly (1956) based on lectures presented at MIT in 1953. The 1965 revised edition added a Socratic dialogue, "The Abacus and the Rose". (Page numbers in parentheses refer to the 1972 Harper & Row "Perennial Library" edition.)

  • The discoveries of science, the works of art are explorations — more, are explosions, of a hidden likeness. The discoverer or the artist presents in them two aspects of nature and fuses them into one. This is the act of creation, in which an original thought is born, and it is the same act in original science and original art.
    • Part 1: "The Creative Mind", §9 (p. 19)
  • Science, like art, is not a copy of nature but a re-creation of her.
    • Part 1: "The Creative Mind", §9 (p. 20)
  • Mass, time, magnetic moment, the unconscious: we have grown up with these symbolic concepts, so that we are startled to be told that man had once to create them for himself. He had indeed, and he has: for mass is not an intuition in the muscle, and time is not bought ready-made at the watchmaker's.
    • Part 2: "The Habit of Truth", §5 (p. 35)
  • The symbol and the metaphor are as necessary to science as to poetry.
    • Part 2: "The Habit of Truth", §6 (p. 36)
  • In effect what Luther said in 1517 was that we may appeal to a demonstrable work of God, the Bible, to override any established authority. The Scientific Revolution begins when Nicolaus Copernicus implied the bolder proposition that there is another work of God to which we may appeal even beyond this: the great work of nature. No absolute statement is allowed to be out of reach of the test, that its consequence must conform to the facts of nature.
    The habit of testing and correcting the concept by its consequences in experience has been the spring within the movement of our civilization ever since. In science and in art and in self-knowledge we explore and move constantly by turning to the world of sense to ask, Is this so? This is the habit of truth, always minute yet always urgent, which for four hundred years has entered every action of ours; and has made our society and the value it sets on man.
    • Part 2: "The Habit of Truth", §11 (p. 45–46)
  • No fact in the world is instant, infinitesimal and ultimate, a single mark. There are, I hold, no atomic facts. In the language of science, every fact is a field—a crisscross of implications, those that lead to it and those that lead from it. [...] We condense the laws around concepts. Science takes its coherence, its intellectual and imaginative strength together, from the concepts at which its laws cross, like knots in a mesh.
    • Part 3: "The Sense of Human Dignity", §1 (p. 52)
  • Positivists and analysts alike believe that the words is and ought belong to different worlds, so that sentences which are constructed with is usually have verifiable meaning, but sentences constructed with ought never have. This is because Ludwig Wittgenstein's unit, and Bertrand Russell's unit, is one man; all British empiricist philosophy is individualist. And it is of course clear that if the only criterion of true and false which a man accepts is that man's, then he has no base for social agreement. The question of how man ought to behave is a social question, which always involves several people; and if he accepts no evidence and no judgment except his own, he has no tools with which to frame an answer.
    • Part 3: "The Sense of Human Dignity", §3 (p. 56)
  • There is a social injunction implied in the positivist and analyst methods. This social axiom is that
           We OUGHT to act in such a way that what IS true can be verified to be so.
    • Part 3: "The Sense of Human Dignity", §3 (p. 58) [emphasis in original]
  • Tolerance among scientists cannot be based on indifference, it must be based on respect. Respect as a personal value implies, in any society, the public acknowledgements of justice and of due honor. These are values which to the layman seem most remote from any abstract study. Justice, honor, the respect of man for man: What, he asks, have these human values to do with science? [...]
    Those who think that science is ethically neutral confuse the findings of science, which are, with the activity of science, which is not.
    • Part 3: "The Sense of Human Dignity", §6 (p. 63–64)
  • Nature is more subtle, more deeply intertwined and more strangely integrated than any of our pictures of her—than any of our errors. It is not merely that our pictures are not full enough; each of our pictures in the end turns out to be so basically mistaken that the marvel is that it worked at all.
    • Part 4: "The Abacus and the Rose" (p. 98)
  • The painter's portrait and the physicist's explanation are both rooted in reality, but they have been changed by the painter or the physicist into something more subtly imagined than the photographic appearance of things.
    • Part 4: "The Abacus and the Rose" (p. 103)
  • The force that makes the winter grow
    Its feathered hexagons of snow,
    and drives the bee to match at home
    Their calculated honeycomb,
    Is abacus and rose combined.
    An icy sweetness fills my mind,
    A sense that under thing and wing
    Lies, taut yet living, coiled, the spring.
    • Part 4: "The Abacus and the Rose" (fin)
  • Dissent is the mark of freedom.
    • (unsorted)

The Ascent of Man (1973)

  • The world can only be grasped by action, not by contemplation.
    • (Unidentified episode)
  • Of course it's tempting to close one's eyes to history, and instead speculate about the roots of war in some possible animal instinct: as if, like the tiger, we still had to kill to live, or, like the robin redbreast, to defend a nesting territory. But war, organized war, is not a human instinct. It is a highly planned and cooperative form of theft. And that form of theft began 10,000 years ago when the harvesters of wheat accumulated a surplus and the nomads rose out of the desert to rob them of what they themselves could not provide. The evidence for that, we saw, in the walled city of Jericho and its prehistoric tower... That is the beginning of war.
    • Episode 2: "The Harvest of the Seasons"
  • The Principle of Uncertainty is a bad name. In science, or outside of it, we are not uncertain; our knowledge is merely confined, within a certain tolerance. We should call it the Principle of Tolerance. And I propose that name in two senses. First, in the engineering sense: Science has progressed, step by step, the most successful enterprise in the ascent of man, because it has understood that the exchange of information between man and nature, and man and man, can only take place with a certain tolerance. But second, I also use the word, passionately, about the real world. All knowledge – all information between human beings – can only be exchanged within a play of tolerance. And that is true whether the exchange is in science, or in literature, or in religion, or in politics, or in any form of thought that aspires to dogma. It's a major tragedy of my lifetime and yours that scientists were refining, to the most exquisite precision, the Principle of Tolerance – and turning their backs on the fact that all around them, tolerance was crashing to the ground beyond repair. The Principle of Uncertainty or, in my phrase, the Principle of Tolerance, fixed once for all the realization that all knowledge is limited. It is an irony of history that at the very time when this was being worked out, there should rise, under Hitler in Germany and other tyrants elsewhere, a counter-conception: a principle of monstrous certainty. When the future looks back on the 1930s, it will think of them as a crucial confrontation of culture as I have been expounding it – the ascent of man against the throwback to the despots' belief that they have absolute certainty.
    • Episode 11: "Knowledge or Certainty"
  • It's said that science will dehumanize people and turn them into numbers. That's false, tragically false. Look for yourself. This is the concentration camp and crematorium at Auschwitz. This is where people were turned into numbers. Into this pond were flushed the ashes of some four million people. And that 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. This is what men do when they aspire to the knowledge of gods.

    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. In the end, the words were said by Oliver Cromwell: "I beseech you in the bowels of Christ: Think it possible you may be mistaken."

    I owe it as a scientist to my friend Leo Szilard, I owe it as a human being to the many members of my family who died here, to stand here as a survivor and a witness. We have to cure ourselves of the itch for absolute knowledge and power. We have to close the distance between the push-button order and the human act. We have to touch people.

    • Episode 11: "Knowledge or Certainty"
  • Fifty years from now, if an understanding of man's origins, his evolution, his history, his progress is not in the common place of the school books, we shall not exist.
    • Episode 13: "The Long Childhood"
  • And I am infinitely saddened to find myself suddenly surrounded in the west by a sense of terrible loss of nerve, a retreat from knowledge into—into what? Into Zen Buddhism; into falsely profound questions about, Are we not really just animals at bottom; into extra-sensory perception and mystery. They do not lie along the line of what we are able to know if we devote ourselves to it: an understanding of man himself. We are nature’s unique experiment to make the rational intelligence prove itself sounder than the reflex. Knowledge is our destiny. Self-knowledge, at last bringing together the experience of the arts and the explanations of science, waits ahead of us.
    • Episode 13: "The Long Childhood"


  • Sooner or later every one of us breathes an atom that has been breathed before by anyone you can think of who has lived before us – Michelangelo or George Washington or Moses.
  • The most remarkable discovery ever made by scientists, was science itself.

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