The great poem and the deep theorem are new to every reader and yet are his own experience because he recreates them. They are the marks of unity in variety; and in the instant when the mind seizes this for itself in art or in science, the heart misses a beat.
He was an extraordinarily whole person and his thinking had a consistency unusual in these times. He was a thinking man, an endangered species. All his life he treated art and science as the same expression of the human imagination. The theme of the imagination ran like a bright ribbon through the fabric of his thought.
If you were to collar me and demand that I name the philosopher who made the biggest impression on me, that philosopher would have to be Jacob Bronowski, known to his friends as Bruno, who was born a century ago today. My introduction to his thinking was The Ascent of Man, his magisterial series of television essays organized around imagination and the many ways it fired man’s drive to understand the universe.
I was barely middle-school age when the series first aired in the U.S. and I could just barely get my fingers along the edges of some of Bronowski’s concepts and arguments. But I can still remember the way Bronowski’s third essay, “The Grain in the Stone,” seized my imagination and shook it. The core of the essay was a discussion of the development of the arch: the flat Greek arch that required dense forests of supporting columns, the utilitarian Roman arch that freed up space, the elongated Moorish arch that continued the process and finally the Gothic arch, and the flying buttresses that permitted the creation of the astonishing cathedrals of Europe. Always ready to keep things grounded in the here and now, Bronowski ended the essay with a visit to one of his favorite architectural follies, the Watts Towers created by Simon Rodia.
It was the first time I’d ever heard of those whimsical confections of masonry, wire and ceramic, and two decades later, when I paid my first visit to Los Angeles, my hosts were surprised and a little puzzled to hear me say I wanted to visit the Watts Towers before anything else. I was sightseeing, naturally, but in a way I was also communing with Bruno, whose name had a way of cropping up at the oddest times.
FIRST PEPPERPOT: P’raps it’s from the zoo.
SECOND PEPPERPOT: Which zoo?
FIRST PEPPERPOT: (Angrily) ‘Ow should I know which zoo it’s from? I’m not Doctor Bloody Bronowski!
SECOND PEPPERPOT: ‘Oo’s Bloody Bronowski?
FIRST PEPPERPOT: He knows everything!
SECOND PEPPERPOT: Oooh, I wouldn’t like that. It would take all the mystery out of life.
“Exploding Penguin,” Monty Python’s Flying Circus
We often hear about the two cultures, the divide between art and science described by C.P. Snow. Jacob Bronowski didn’t bridge that gap so much as he made it irrelevant. I have friends in the arts as well as the sciences, and I am often struck by the overlap between the two. The best writers can get very technical and matter-of-fact about the way they pursue inspiration, while the best scientists are fueled by wonder and inspiration even as they methodically note down test results and goals. In both endeavors, the goal is to reach the truth. The artist seeks to evoke it; the scientist seeks to describe it. But each is looking for something outside himself, something true and recognizable, that can be communicated to others. When talking up Bronowski’s work, I used to point out that the first two books published by this philosopher of science were studies of poetry and William Blake. Over the years, I’ve come to realize that Bronowski never stopped talking about poetry — he simply switched his terms from meter and scansion to protons and wavelengths.
My best Christmas present last month was the complete set of The Ascent of Man, remastered for DVD and available from Ambrose Video. Though some minor aspects of the 1972 production have dated (let’s just say the borderline cheesy theme music has not stood the test of time) the series itself is as powerful as ever.
Some months ago I became exasperated with critic Clive James, who took up the old middlebrow line against science as the begetter of holocausts and wars:
The future of science, Renan’s cherished avenir de la science, can be assessed from our past, in which it flattened cities and gassed innocent children: whatever we don’t yet know about it, one thing we already know is that it is not necessarily benevolent. But somewhere within the total field of human knowledge, humanism still beckons to us as our best reason for having minds at all.
Passages like that make me wonder about whether James does, in fact, have a mind.
One of the cornerstones of Bronowski’s philosophy of life is that the questing, questioning nature of science is humanity’s best defense against the brutish certainties that create wars and catastrophes. The fact that the Nazis deployed the most advanced technology available for the most primitive ends imaginable does not make science the mistress of the gas chamber.
Bronowski address this directly in “Knowledge or Certainty,” one of the most powerful essays in The Ascent of Man. The episode ends with Bronowski standing outside the concentration camp where most of his relatives met a horrible fate. Science did not create this disaster, he explains. It was created by certainty — by the lethal certainties of closed, bigoted minds that believed they held all the answers, and were prepared to use them to decide whether entire races of people deserved to exist.
The conclusion is at the top of the post, and I invite you to watch it. I doubt there’s a more moving moment on all of television.