The Ascent of Man.



TV Over the past few weeks, first thing in the morning, after I’ve woken up, listened to the news headlines from the Today programme on Radio 4, been to the toilet and made a cup of tea, I’ve been settling down to watch an episode of Jacob Bronowski’s landmark 1973 series The Ascent of Man. It’s been a revelation and a perfectly profound way to begin each day (see this earlier post for one of my braingasms).

Although I know that some of the facts and discussion in the series have become out of date in the forty-odd years since it was first broadcast (and according to the booklet that accompanies the dvd during the making of the series leading to some rushed reshoots) having been streamed through the arts since school I’ve been desperate for a primer on the history of science and why not take advantage of what some consider to be the televisual primary source?

Proposed by then BBC Two director David Attenborough as the scientific follow up the earlier, highly successful art series, Kenneth Clarke’s Civilisation, the series at a basic level does indeed provide a history of science covering all of the big topics in a slow sweep across the development of civilisation in the past ten thousand years: archaeology, anthropology, biology, chemistry, mathematics, astronomy, physics, engineering, evolution, particle physics, more physics, genetics and psychology.

These stories are played out across thirteen fifty-minute films shot in twenty-seven countries with Bronowski constantly on screen, animated expressing each subject through densely packed lectures which were apparently improvised on the spot. The Dr. knew roughly what he was going to say and would impart it to the production team and they would then film him, either from the front of shifting about the location. The impression is of a Royal Society Christmas lecture in which the expert steps and sits about a constantly shifting landscape.

Bronowski is positively hypnotic, often grinning in the middle of sentences as the shear joy of being given the opportunity to impart this knowledge overwhelms him and we hang on ever word. As Attenborough notes in the interview that accompanies the episodes on dvd, "Bruno" was the master of the dramatic pause and he does often stop in the middle of a sentence as though he's trying to find exactly the right word to express his ideas.

Unafraid to jump off into the detailed abyss of a subject and expecting the viewer to join him, there were occasions, especially during the episode on particle physics when I couldn't quite follow the narrative but that’s more likely to be a failure of my understanding than his clarity and that’s as it should be. Television is always slightly disappointing when it simplifies a subject to make it intelligible to everyone. It should challenge us. And at least on dvd, I could rewind and try again.

Each film is beautifully rendered and often spectacular but often it’s the simplest imagery which has the most impact. The destruction of Hiroshima is minimised to a large bang, a melting clock, and shots of Japanese people in streets who because of this juxtaposition seem entirely bewildered by the oncoming fate. Contrast that with the modern recourse to offer a giant computer generate mushroom cloud and we see the dignity with which Bronowski is desperate to present his story.

Time and again Bronowski surprises us by not taking the obvious route to explaining a topic. His story of evolution is though the diaries of Alfred Russel Wallace the other scientist who discovered natural selection in parallel with Darwin. The trial of Gallileo proceeds through a transcript read in voiceover by Joss Ackland against empty chairs in a room similar to the location for the original meeting leaving the audience to imagine the white heat of injustice within the room.

But the series is subtitled “A Personal View” and rather than presenting a dispassionate history, Bronowski is keen to explain how scientific thought and development are constantly under threat from the kind of dogma and cynicism, usually religious, that is unable to assimilate new discoveries and theories when a different set of absolute truths has already been established. Time and again we see work, from Gallileo through Darwin to Mendel, either deliberate suppressed or put in a drawer for fear of insulting the establishment.

In the final programme he predicts that scientists will increasingly be unable to do their best work, their life’s work, because political and business interests will take up so much of their time, presumably because theoretical science will not pay the wages. When the Large Hadron Collider was turned on the first time, questions were asked about why some would spend all of that money without there being some kind of practical use.

Well, because science isn’t always and shouldn't always be about that. As someone comments on this exchange from Newsnight between the LHC's Dr Brian Cox and Sir David King (the president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science), "personally, i think any amount of money is worth paying if it gives us even the slightest chance of finding out the most fundamental unanswered questions of our existence." Quite, right, and I'm sure Bruno would approve.

I wonder how he’d feel about this slightly older version of the world were science is rarely undertaken unless there will be some kind of monetary outcome even within universities whose researchers and often departments are being funded by big business. He's adamant that The Ascent of Man stagnates when children aren’t taught the history of science isn't taught properly in school and society doesn’t take a keen interest as a whole of the subject. A pessimist like myself wonders if is prediction has come true with me as the prime example. Sorry Bruno.

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