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Heroes of Science Episode 3

He was really the first person from the world of science, or academia more importantly, who understood that television was the way to educate people.

On Jacob Bronowski

I love Jacob Bronowski for a number of reasons.  One of them is sort of, quite, kind of visceral which is that he reminds me of my own family.  My own family are middle European Jews and he talks like my elderly relatives all used to talk.  So there’s that.

One of the things I love about him as a man, and as a figure, and he’s slightly forgotten now, is he was really the first person from the world of science, or academia more importantly, who understood that television was the way to educate people.  It wasn’t, or it wasn’t seen as, because ‘The Ascent of Man‘, which is his masterwork really, a 13-part series about the development of humans from their evolution from monkeys to the scientific progress up to and including 1974.  And at that time, people in his world felt that television was a sort of base medium, it was an idiot’s medium, it was all a bit vulgar and why would he go off and spend his time doing this.  Whereas he saw himself as explaining to a great, this was the opportunity to explain to millions of peoples, the idea, the – millions of peoples?  No.  Possibly over time, it’s all broadcast into space isn’t it – but millions of people, ah, that story, that extraordinary story and to interest them in science.  I love him for that and I love the BBC for that, there’s no other company that would’ve done that.  It’s an extraordinary piece of work.

It’s famous for a couple of things.  It’s famous for, he would extemporise, that’s one of the things, he would extemporise at great length.  You couldn’t make a show like this now, everything’s got to be very flashy, we’ve got to see a graphic, it’s all got to be, if Brian’s talking about something there better be planets swirling around his head and there’s that, that impetus now in television, but at the time it was a man standing there talking at you for about seven minutes about salt in a dark Polish salt mine.

I mean the whole thing is extraordinary, it’s full of moments you would never see now, partly because of the style in which it’s presented.  And the real climax, it contains one of the most powerful pieces of television, no, actually the most powerful piece of television I think, that I can think of, where he, ah, he’s standing outside Auschwitz and it’s a point to remember he’s a Polish man whose family were exterminated, you know, in the camps, or many members of his family, and around Auschwitz is mud and puddles and in amongst the mud and puddles, still, the run-off and the waste from the camps remains, because this stuff doesn’t degrade, hair and the corporeal parts of the people who were exterminated.  And what’s really interesting is, he’s standing there in a show that is designed to explain the journey of science and taking the time to make the point that Auschwitz…he takes on the idea of science and evil because it’s incredibly current still at that time, under 30 years after the end of the second world war, that notion that science is somehow suspect because it can be employed by evil, it can be put to evil uses.  And he stands outside Auschwitz, in amongst this mud and he scoops, he kneels down and he scoops up, saying that he has to do it, he takes up a clump of mud and hair and he says he has to do it as a sort of act of communion with friends of his and scientists who have been murdered by this machine, and he makes the very key distinction that it’s not science that is responsible for the thing he is standing in, it’s dogma, it’s the thing that employed the science.  The belief in the absolute truth is the problem.

And in fact, science is exactly the opposite of that.  Science is not a belief in an absolute truth.  It’s the pursuit of truth but it’s not the belief in an absolute truth.  The belief in an absolute truth is anti-science because science is constant doubt.  Where, actually, it’s interesting because that’s the language of faith, but science is constant doubt and not absolute truths and when you use it in the employ of absolute truth this is what you end up with and it’s hard to imagine a moment like that being shown in a programme, just a general survey of the history of science and, you know, along with Carl Sagan’s ‘Pale Blue Dot’ it remains, I think it’s the most powerful, sort of, piece of scientific discussion, discourse that I’ve seen, that has been broadcast probably, on the television.