Jacob Bronowski

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,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. 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 and many other physicists of that time, 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. 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 Memorial 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.

ascent_of_manHe 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 human beings through scientific endeavour. This project was intended to parallel art historian Kenneth Clark’s earlier “personal view” series Civilisation (1969) which had covered cultural history. During the making of The Ascent of Man, Bronowski was interviewed by the popular British chat show host Michael Parkinson who once recounted that 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 in East Hampton, NY a year after The Ascent of Man was completed, and was buried in the western side of London’s Highgate Cemetery, near the entrance.

Via Wikipedia

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5 Responses to Jacob Bronowski

  1. alfy says:

    Here is a challenge for readers. Try to find out what research papers were published by Bronowski in the period after his wartime work, which was presumably secret, and the closure of the National Coal Board research venture of which he was director. I tried and failed.

  2. Deskarati says:

    Well personally I think the the series and book of the Ascent of Man makes up for any lack of academic work in his later life, but then I’m a bit biased as it was this series that sparked my interest in ‘all things science’.

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  4. R. Lalonde says:

    I had the great opportunity to know Mr.Bronowski when his Ascent of Man series was playing on tv. Contrary to conventional, the series was released as Tele-University, translated to french, about 3 times a year for approx. 3 years, around 1985. I taped on VHS the 13 episodes and still watch it today. Mr. Bronowski gave Ascent of Man a real treasure to humanity. Thanks Jacob, may you rest in peace.

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