Review of the Documentary Film Series

The Ascent of Man


[Review of the 1973 television series narrated by Bronowski]

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 flowered.

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 narratives:

(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 fences.

(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 gravitation. "

(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.