In 1969, the BBC wanted to make a series that would be a scientific counterpart to Civilisation, their highly successful series on Western Art, given by Lord Clarke. They turned, eventually, to Bronowski, though not without experiencing some difficulties. It was not a light undertaking for Bronowski, either, as he described later in the introduction to the book of the series:
“It demands an unflagging intellectual and physical vigour, a total immersion, which I had to be sure I could sustain with pleasure; for instance, I had to put off researches I had already begun.”
(Source: Dr. Bronowski.com)
I was about six or seven in 1973 when Bronowski’s hymn to reason, his history of science was first broadcast. I must have watched a repeat later when I was older, maybe ten or eleven? Whenever it was, it made an impact on me that even now, over thirty years later, remains with me. This TV programme changed the way I think and definitely changed the course of my life.
Over thirteen chapters, Bronowski gives a breathtaking overview of human history, culture and scientific progress. This is one of the best historical programmes you will ever see and that’s not even its central remit!
I was blown away by the precision and power of Bronowski’s expositions. I still remember how stunned I was seeing him sit on top of a hill and explain Pythagoras’ Theorem with just a few triangles. He made it real, and in so doing, made me understand the genius of Pythagoras. Maybe in these days of fancy-schmancy 3D CGI whizzing about in educational progs, Bronowski’s patient, slow explanation may seem like an anachronism but I disagree. In fact, Bronowski paved the way for many pop-science programmes with the huge success of ‘The Ascent of Man.’ Without Bronowski, would there have been the will to make ‘Life on Earth?’
What I also love about this series is that it’s an emotional examination. Bronowski throws himself into the stories behind thinkers such as Ludwig Boltzmann, Galileo and Alfred Russel Wallace. In particular, I remember my anger at hearing the barbaric treatment meted out to Galileo by the Catholic Church, simply for telling the truth, and that anger solidified my atheism into a deep abhorrence of all organised religions. The Catholic Church, with typical humility, did apologise for its persecution of Galileo, only 359 years after his trial.
The most moving moment for me is when Bronowski visits Auschwitz, where many of his family were murdered. I’ve quoted his voice-over of that scene many times, sadly it always seems apt:
There are two parts to the human dilemma. One is the belief that the end justifies the means. That push-button philosophy, that deliberate deafness to suffering has become the monster in the war machine. The other is the betrayal of the human spirit, the assertion of dogma that closes the mind and turns a nation, a civilisation, into a regiment of ghosts.
In the extra documentary that comes with the crisp transfer to DVD, we learn that this scene, where Bronowski plunges his hand into the pond and comes up grasping the ashes of the holocaust, wasn’t planned. It was just Bronowski, going with his feelings, connecting at more than a “narrator” level:
As he does this, his voice-over says:
We have to cure ourselves of the itch for absolute knowledge and power. We have to close the distance between the push-button order and the human act. We have to touch people.
It’s a horrifying, intense moment. A testament to Bronowski’s view that television could be more than just an idiot-box, more than gameshows and sport, soap operas and celebrity. To Bronowski, television was worthy of being taken seriously
Throughout ‘The Ascent of Man,’ Bronowski takes familiar names (and some not-so-familiar) and fleshes them out, brings them to life for us. He skips from abstract concept to hard reality with a grace and deftness that’s sorely missing in contemporary television. At no time do you feel he’s out of his depth, either scientifically or historically. He has the ultimate historical skill: he stands back, shows you disparate points in history, different discoveries and revelations, and then manages to synthesise a sweeping overview.
But is any of this important? Sure, we need boffins to make flashy mobile phones for us but why care about science? What does it matter in our everyday lives?
A couple of years ago, I was watching a lunchtime news bulletin about xeno transplantation. A scientist was explaining to the newscaster how maybe one day it would be possible to breed pigs with enough of the right kind of human genes so that their hearts could be used to transplant into humans. The newscaster was horrified (as I am, but for different reasons) and asked about the dangers. The scientist was confused. The newscaster said, “What if someone has a pig’s heart transplanted into them? What happens when they have children, won’t their children have pig genes in them?”
The scientist did the same amazed face as I was doing at the telly and, in the middle of her astonishment, tried to explain the basics of germline versus soma. Basics the newscaster, a university-educated professional, should have understood. And if you’re as befuddled as him, have a slow think about this: if you get a tattoo, will your kids be born with that same tattoo? If you have your leg chopped off, does that mean your kids will be born with one leg missing?
This is a big problem with contemporary Western society: vast swathes of the population are ignorant about basic science. If you don’t have a grounding in reason, what takes its place is un-reason: religion, superstitions, rumour, fables, magic, astrology, new-age bullshit. All the intellectual clag that gums-up your brain and then makes rational thought as easy and pleasurable as shoving a fork in your eye. You become a gumby:
I believe that if everyone at some time sat down and watched ‘The Ascent of Man,’ they would be enthralled and enlightened. The world would make more sense, it would be far less frightening and opaque.
That’s a lot to claim for a TV programme. But then, this is the best TV programme ever made.