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Jacob Bronowski

Jacob Bronowski (1908-1974) was a polymath and broadcaster, especially remembered for presenting 1973 TV series The Ascent of Man.

Career as a broadcaster

Jacob Bronowski - mathematician, poet, literary critic and philosopher of science - was the most distinguished member of a group of students who were at the College before the Second World War, and subsequently contributed to the new era of radio and television broadcasting.

This group included Alistair Cooke, whose weekly radio Letter from America continued for more than half a century, radio producers Douglas Cleverdon and Terrence Tiller, and novelist and essayist Gerald Bullett.

Bronowski was a star performer in the long running Brains Trust radio and television programme, and the author and presenter of a notable 13 part television series The Ascent of Man (1973), which charted the development of human thought and scientific discovery. Both the series itself and the book of the series are widely recognised as classics of their genre.

Academic career

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 placed 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 the avant garde literary magazine Experiment, and writing and publishing his own poetry.

He continued these activities as he worked for the PhD 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.

Publications

His first book of literary criticism was published by the Cambridge University Press in 1939; his second was a study of the poet and artist William Blake, published in 1944 and written while he was working in government research posts in London and Washington.

At the end of the Second World War he was sent to Japan and wrote the official British report on The Effects of the Atomic Bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki (1945).

Afterwards he worked on science policy for the government and the National Coal Board (where he was responsible for the development of smokeless fuel), until he was headhunted by California’s Salk Institute for Biological Studies, where he remained until his early death.

In The Ascent of Man Bronowski 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.” 

His eldest daughter Lisa Jardine, a notable scholar of Renaissance literature, philosophy, and science, was the College’s first woman Fellow. 

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