Tuesday, November 20, 2018

The Ascent of Jacob Bronowski

I just finished reading a pre-publication copy of Timothy Sandefur’s upcoming The Ascent of Jacob Bronowski. If even I, a reader of many popular science books, have barely heard of Jacob Bronowski, you can bet that most people have forgotten him. But before there was Neil DeGrasse Tyson, before Stephen Jay Gould, before Carl Sagan, there was Jacob Bronowski (1908-1974) whose passion was to open up the minds of non-scientists to the power and beauty of science.

Bronowski’s work was based on a fundamental assertion of faith that I share, but which I sometimes question. It is that most people are smart enough to understand science, at least in its basic outlines, and smart enough to use the scientific mode of thought. This is the basis of my book, to be released in December, ScientificallyThinking. Bronowski’s gospel was to get scientists to speak clearly and simply to non-scientists and open their eyes to science. I believe that most people are smart enough to do this, but relatively few people really want to. Most people would rather sit in their backwater of ignorance and listen only to things that reinforce their lazy prejudices.

Bronowski (known to his friends as Bruno) was the perfect example of a Renaissance Man, that is, someone who is interested in everything. I first learned this term back about 1977 when a friend called me a Renaissance Man. I was a biology major who wrote novels, wrote orchestra music, and studied history and languages. Perhaps only a Renaissance Man (or woman) can make the connections necessary to bring people from all different modes of thought together. This was certainly Bronowski. An English child of eastern European immigrants, he started off as a poet. But he was also interested in mathematics, which led to statistics. (Statistics differs from pure mathematics because pure math deals with the certainties of deduction, while statistics tries to understand the messy reality of the world through induction. At least, that’s my summary of it.) His mathematical expertise got him involved in the effort for the Allies to win World War II, and later to make industrial production more efficient.

This mathematical work did not always lead Bronowski where he might have expected. Yes, he helped the Allies win World War II, but like many other scientists he was deeply disturbed by the effects of atomic bombs. He traveled in Japan after the bombs, and knew that the new power we had unleashed from the atom was completely disproportionate to any legitimate military goals even the best of countries might have. Also, his dedication to industrial efficiency led him on the ultimately quixotic quest to produce Bronowski Bricks from coal dust, sort of a fossil fuel version of charcoal briquets. The briquets reduced coal waste, to be sure, but they were very expensive to produce, and, according to Prince Philip, they looked like turds.

But Bruno’s wide knowledge, and being at the right place at the right time, threw him into the public spotlight in radio and television broadcasting. He produced, one after another, important science documentaries, culminating in his still-famous The Ascent of Man. He dabbled in lots of things at which he was not really skilled, such as writing a light opera libretto that was not very good (the music was by Peter Racine Fricker, who was on the music faculty when I entered the University of California at Santa Barbara). But he tried!

Science and art, said Bronowski, were both creative. Take, for example, Copernicus, who did some of the earliest work that proved the sun to be the center of the solar system, rather than Earth being the center of the universe. Copernicus had to imagine what the planets would do if he were at a central solar vantage point, but as an artist has to imagine what the final work would look like. Both scientists and artists test concepts: scientists, how well the concept explains the natural world, and poets, how well the poem expands our experience.

Another idea he had was that animals need intelligence in order to have free will. You have to be able to visualize possible futures before you can choose among them. Only humans can do this. I do not know if Bronowski actually solved the problem of free will, but he clarified it, at least for non-philosophers like me. He helped lay the foundation for the study of language acquisition. He said that only humans can make a sentence out of separate words, and then isolate one word and generalize about that one concept.

When he helped to start the Salk Institute, Bronowski moved to La Jolla, California. He would host scholars for discussions in his living room (where he also filed the final episode of Ascent). He was an inspiring partner for dialogue. While he knew everything about everything, he could make you feel brilliant even when he was saying you were wrong, according to more than one of his acquaintances.

Jacob Bronowski inspired us to think big, to see all human thought as a single fabric rather than as a collage of specialties. And he was an early inspiration for what we now call citizen science. They didn’t have the internet back then, but on his televised shows he encouraged viewers to send in postcards with their own scientific thoughts on them.

You can get a taste for the kind of spellbinding quality Bruno had by seeing this short YouTube clip from one of the Ascent episodes. Apparently when the BBC was filming this segment, they did not expect Bruno to walk out into the pond; this was extemporized.

I have a lot of different kinds of creative and intellectual output. I am not equally good at all of them, and am not world-class at any of them, as far as I can tell. But I can still do a lot of good with them. Bruno is my guiding light in this respect.

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