Books : reviews

Jacob Bronowski.
Science and Human Values.
Faber and Faber. 1956

Science and Human Values was originally a lecture by Jacob Bronowski at MIT in 1953. Published five years later, it opens unforgettably with Bronowski’s description of Nagasaki in 1945: ‘a bare waste of ashes’, making him acutely aware of sciences power both for good and for evil.

After such knowledge, what forgiveness? With care and erudition Bronowski argues that scientific endeavour is an essentially creative act, part of a great shared human interest in ourselves and the world around us; and, routinely, a process of trial and error, the end of which cannot be preordained.

Jacob Bronowski.
The Ascent of Man.
BBC. 1973

Dr Bronowski’s magnificent thirteen-part BBC television series The Ascent of Man traced our rise – both as a species and as moulders of our own environment and future. This is the book of the programmes. It covers the history of science, but of science in the broadest terms. Invention from the flint tool to geometry, from the arch to the theory of relativity, are shown to be expressions of man’s specific ability to understand nature, to control it, not to be controlled by it.

Dr Bronowski’s rare grasp not only of science, but also of its historical and social context, gives him great advantages as an historian of ideas. It is a book which gives us anew perspective not just on science, but on civilisation.

[Chapter 11 "Knowledge or Certainty", p360] The symbol of the University [of Göttingen] is the iron statue outside the Rathskeller of a barefoot goosegirl that every student kisses at graduation. The University is a Mecca to which students come with something less than perfect faith. It is important that students bring a certain ragamuffin, barefoot irreverence to their studies; they are not here to worship what is known but to question it.

Jacob Bronowski.
The Origins of Knowledge and Imagination.
Yale University Press. 1978

In this eloquent volume Jacob Bronowski, mathematician and scientist, presents a succinct introduction to the state of modern thinking about the role of science in man’s intellectual and moral life. Weaving together themes from ethnology, linguistics, philosophy, and physics, he confronts the questions of who we are, what we are, and how we relate to the universe around us.

Arguing that in order to understand human knowledge we must first grasp the means by which it is acquired, Bronowski traces the evolutionary stages of the cognitive and linguistic capacities peculiar to man. He treats science as a special kind of language and develops a series of striking and original theses about the scope and limitations of scientific knowledge. He demonstrates the ways in which any scientific theory mirrors reality and analyzes the role of imagination and metaphor in scientific discovery.

Bronowski’s reflections on human understanding are those of a man who spent a lifetime thinking about man and science. The ideas set forth in this volume enrich us with fresh insight into the importance of imagination in philosophy and science as well as in the literary and visual arts.