Review of the Documentary Film Series
The Ascent of Man
[Review of the 1973 television series narrated by
High school history is little more than political history: not
irrelevant but a sad omission of our intellectual heritage .
Bronowski begins to make up for this negligence with a book based on
his 13 part BBC series on the history of civilization and science.
Having worked with the medium of television, he points out the
advantages of the written word over visual images. The reader is
exposed to more detail of evidence and can pause to reflect, whereas
the viewer cannot. Of course, he said this in pre-VCR days, but the
truth about detail still holds , and other scientist- broadcasters
(i.e David Suzuki) who were initially enthusiastic about television
now seriously question its power as an educational tool.
While the counterculture was busy celebrating our links to the
animal world, Bronowski looked at those gifts that allow us to stand
out from the rest of the kingdom. Our ability to move our minds
through space and time is taken for granted, and yet it is what has
made our lives both more comfortable and more meaningful. And while
the media focused on the corruption in society ( at the time of
publication, there was the Vietnam War and Watergate ), Bronowski
looked at major steps in its evolution: the transition from hunting
and gathering to farming and eventually to building cities. Without
the evolution of culture itself, man's potential would never have
Bronowski argues in his concluding chapter that the longest
childhood has been that of civilization, learning to understand the
tremendous potential of the child's brain. As western society came
to grips with that truth about human nature, science flourished,
giving us, in turn, even more insight into who we are.
Aside from the generalities there are wonderful tidbits (delicious
in themselves) on the history of science--which of course are
eventually tied into his general themes and often parts of powerful
(1) When Pythagoras proved a2 + b2 = c2
, he offered a hundred oxen to the Muses in thanks for the
inspiration. Contrast that to the modern day athletes who expect and
get millions for shooting balls through hoops and hitting balls over
(2) The Inquisition threatened Galileo twice with torture. He
recanted his beliefs about the Copernican system, and the Scientific
revolution moved from the Mediterranean to Northern Europe.
Ironically, in the year that Galileo died, Newton was born.
(3) Dalton measured the rainfall and temperature in Manchester for
57 years, which amounted to nothing. But his curiosity about the
weights of molecules led to modern atomic theory. Bronowski writes,
" In science, ask an impertinent question, and you get a
pertinent answer. "
(4) In a lifetime, " Einstein joined light to time and time
to space; energy to matter, matter to space and space to
(5) Leo Szilard, who with Fermi had developed the first nuclear
reactor, wanted the atomic bomb to be tested openly before the
Japanese and an international audience, so that the Japanese would
surrender before millions died.