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Jacob Bronowski

Jacob Bronowski

Jacob Bronowski (1908 – 1974), mathematician, poet, literary critic and philosopher of science, was the most distinguished member of a group of students who were at Jesus College before the Second World War, and subsequently contributed significantly to the development of the new media of broadcasting.  This group included Alistair Cooke whose weekly radio Letter from America continued for more than half a century, the radio producers Douglas Cleverdon and Terrence Tiller, and the novelist and essayist Gerald Bullett.  Bronowski was a star performer in the long-running Brains’ Trust (the radio predecessor of television’s more down-market Question Time) and the author and presenter of a notable 13-part television series The Ascent of Man (1973), recounting the development of human thought and scientific discovery, both the series itself and the book of the series (which remains in print) being widely recognised as classics of their genre.

Bronowski entered the College as a Scholar in 1927, just seven years after arriving in England with his Polish-Jewish parents knowing no English.  He was in the First Class in both parts of the Mathematical Tripos, while also playing chess for the University against Oxford, becoming literary editor of Granta, founding an avante-garde literary magazine Experiment, and writing and publishing his own poetry, activities which he continued as he worked for the Ph. D. in algebra which he obtained in 1933.  He was then, and until the outbreak of the Second World War, lecturer in Mathematics at University College, Hull.  His first book of literary criticism was published by the Cambridge University Press in 1939; his second, a study of the poet and artist William Blake, in 1944 (revised 1965, 1972) was written while working in government research posts in London and Washington.  At the end of the war he was sent to Japan and wrote the official British report on The Effects of the Atomic Bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki (1945).  Thereafter he continued to work on science policy for the government and the National Coal Board, where he was responsible for the development of smokeless fuel, until he was head-hunted by California’s Salk Institute for Biological Studies where he remained until his early death.

In The Ascent of Man he had declared that “my ambition is to create a philosophy for the twentieth century that shall be all one piece.  There cannot be a decent philosophy, there cannot be a decent science, without humanity.”  It is a fair, albeit summary, assessment of his life’s work.

His daughter Lisa Jardine, a notable scholar of renaissance literature, philosophy and science, was the College’s first woman Fellow and, like her father, has been elected an Honorary Fellow – a unique double in the history of the College.

Further reading: the ODNB entry by Susan Sheets – Pyenson.