18 January 2008


On this date in 1908, Jacob Bronowski was born.

When I choose which events and births and deaths to profile in this blog, it's often difficult to pick the most significant. Often I have to hope that I continue to do this for more than a year, just to get back to some of the interesting stories I had to pass up the first time around. For January 18, there was no question that Bronowski would be my subject.

Jacob Bronowski is best known to most people, myself included, for his excellent work on the BBC's Ascent of Man. Ascent, for those of this generation that have not yet seen it, is a masterwork explaining the various ways that science and technology have shaped human civilization. While Darwin traced humanity's "Descent" back to our evolutionary ancestors, Bronowski chose the opposite, starting at the point we became truly modern humans and noting the way that science fostered our growth and development. It was a brilliant show.

One of the most memorable moments from Ascent was also one of the formative moments in my understanding, limited as it may be, of science. In the eleventh of thirteen episodes, Bronowski visited Auschwitz, the infamous Nazi death camp. He proceeded to make one of the most important points I have ever heard, that certainty is the enemy not only of science, but of humanity. No explanation I could possibly offer would do better than Bronowski's own, and so here, thanks to the glory that is YouTube, is that segment. I encourage you to buy the entire series, and see why it was Carl Sagan' inspiration for making Cosmos.

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