Before David Attenborough, there was Jacob Bronowski – promoting the public understanding of science

David Attenborough is arguably the world’s best-known and appreciated science-nature documentary maker. His programmes are watched by millions around the world, and his pronouncements about science today carry enormous weight. Before him, though – and before Dawkins for that matter – there was a scientist small in stature but an intellectual giant who promoted the public engagement with science – Jacob Bronowski.

Born in Poland of Jewish heritage, Bronowski (1908-74) – Bruno to his schoolmates and teachers – migrated with his parents to England, where the young Jacob excelled academically. While earning a PhD in mathematics, Bronowski became an accomplished poet.

This is important, because he always stressed the artificiality of the arts-versus-sciences dichotomy. The arts – literature, poetry and so on – were said to be saturated with passion and emotion. The natural sciences were cold, objective and impersonal. Bronowski’s life work is testimony to the fact that this distinction is not only flawed, but harmful to the full development of human understanding.

During World War 2, Bronowski developed mathematical strategies for RAF Bomber Command, working in the field of operations research. He was part of a British team that traveled to Hiroshima and Nagasaki to document the effects of the respective atomic bombings of those cities. After studying the effects of those attacks, Bronowski – and a number of his physicist friends – stopped working for the UK military.

It was this experience that compelled Bronowski to examine the ethics of science, and prompted him to address the question of humanist values. He wrote of his observations while in Nagasaki:

On a fine November day in 1945, late in the afternoon, I was landed on an airstrip in Southern Japan. From there a jeep was to take me over the mountains to join a ship which lay in Nagasaki Harbour. … suddenly I was aware that we were already at the centre of damage in Nagasaki. The shadows behind me were the skeletons of the Mitsubishi factory buildings, pushed backwards and sideways as if by a giant hand….I had blundered into this desolate landscape as instantly as one might wake among the craters of the moon.

He continued his work on poetry after the Second World War, carried out research on biological and anthropological questions – elaborating the characteristics of australopithecines. Turning his attention to the history of science, it is through his magisterial documentary series, The Ascent of Man, that he is best known to subsequent generations. (And yes, by ‘man’ he meant humankind, not just men).

What Bronowski achieved through his documentary was make science accessible to a wide audience, increase public engagement with scientific literacy, and highlight the importance of ethical values in informing scientific research. His documentary series was first broadcast in 1973; sadly, he died of a heart attack in 1974. He never witnessed the tremendous popular impact his work produced.

Since that time, there have been numerous science educators and writers; the American analogue to Bronowski is the late Carl Sagan, the astronomer and planetary scientist who wrote the popular science book and series Cosmos. Sagan also brought a humanistic perspective to the scientific endeavour. In 1995, Sagan wrote the book The Demon-Haunted World, defending skepticism and the scientific method against pseudoscience and superstition.

Bronowski addressed the issue of dogma, distinguishing it from scientific inquiry and research. Dogma reduces people to numbers and churns through them with cold detachment – you may listen to his words on the subject here. Bronowski raised this issue while visiting Auschwitz, where racist dogma and arrogance combined to produce unimaginable horrors.

To be sure, science has had its own problems with pseudoscientific and dubious theories regarding race and racism. The United States has a long and disturbing history of scientific perversions, leading to the implementation of policies constructing a racially stratified society. The abuse of science to rationalise economic inequalities and racially divisive structures has a resilient presence in American society.

We will look at these issues in the next article – stay tuned.

For the moment, let’s remember the inspiring work and example of Jacob Bronowski.

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