Jacob Bronowski: A Recollection by Aubrey Singer
MY FRIEND, Jacob Bronowski, was small in stature, but a giant intellect. I have met other intellects, but he displayed a generosity which touched me in many ways. He would, for instance, listen to me. This flattery of rapt attention from a mind infinitely better than one's own made one feel very good. He brought out the best in one, and this was not something that was a flash in the pan - it stayed. He was a natural teacher, and the concepts of the history of science and of human development which I picked up from him, in many hours of programme discussions, have remained with me.
The essence of Bronowski was simplicity. I once took a leaf out of his book and wrote an elegant Christmas-card poem, illustrated by my children. I did not see him for six months. When I did, I finally asked him what he thought. He said "But, Aubrey, you put enough thoughts in that for fifty poems. I'm much simpler than that."
From 1945, when, as one of the first British team into Hiroshima he gave his first radio talk on the effects of the Hiroshima bomb, until his death in 1974, the BBC worked with Bruno. [His letters] indicate three facets of the Bronowski mind. It had, indeed, a three-dimensional rat-trap quality. As a television producer, the thing to ensure was that it did not spring shut on you on any one of three areas: wit, logic or business affairs. (see Letter to Noordhoff)
Bruno was not an easy man to get on with.
He could be very spiky. But, then, cannot we all, when our
vanity is offended or our sense of propriety jarred by infelicitous
behaviour? Maybe he was becoming too successful scientifically and
in his other activities. In 1955, the BBC held discussions with
Bruno to produce a major programme on nuclear energy.
The AEA let the DG of the BBC know that they held Bruno
to be persona non grata, ostensibly for defence reasons,
Aubrey Singer was born in 1927. He became Head of Science
and Features for BBC TV in 1961,
Controller of BBC2 from 1974 to 1978 and Managing Director of
BBC Radio from 1978 to 1982. He was Managing Director of
White City Films until 1994.
He was awarded the CBE in 1984.
This lecture was given at the University of Toronto where Jacob Bronowski's papers were originally archived.
Insight, William Blake and Leonardo
By 1960 Bruno was back at the BBC again. The man chosen to lure him back was me. The series was called Insight. It was not an unmitigated success. We got our scale wrong. Everything was bigger than Bruno: the studios, the sets, the models, the screen. Only the ideas, which were his, weren't. But in working with him, I discovered an Achille's heel. Bruno would always fall for a producer's megalomania - he trusted you, and it was too easy to let two lots of mannerisms resonate and amplify each other, with drastic results.
You either loved or hated Bruno. If you agree with Liam Hudson's division of minds into convergers and divergers, then the former hated Bruno's almost poetic generalisations about things they thought should be cut and dried, whilst the divergers found, in the stimulating flights of imagination and new connections, a source of exciting inspiration. For the television viewer, as for the scientific establishment, there was no in-between. Research reports of the time show the viewer who did not like him disliked his mannered gestures, his slow speech and the high level at which he worked. To this viewer, neither his ideas nor his presentation contained the facile persona of the usual presenter.
If we regard the Ascent of Man as the highlight of his career as a communicator of science to a general audience, then there were two other major BBC documentaries [that preceded it]. The first was the programme on Leonardo da Vinci, Tell Me If Anything Ever Was Done. The second was a programme on William Blake. Both were produced by Adrian Malone. Now Malone is certainly a mannered producer. If he is serving his subject, his performers and his audience, the results can be brilliant. Where he is serving himself at the expense of these three…
Leonardo was brilliant - it was pure, committed Bronowski, with producer and expositor collaborating together, contrapuntally allying testimony with illustration. Blake was different. Here, the producer had an unsure Bronowski - who was unsure because he felt himself being absorbed in imagery, in the impendimenta of production, rather than being allowed his unfettered say.
Ascent of Man
It is fair to say that Ascent was born over a lunch between Bruno, Dr Robert Reid, then Head of Science features, and myself, in Paris in June 1969. For some time, in features group we had been asking ourselves who could do (so to speak) for science what Kenneth Clarke had done for the history of art. Bruno asked for a month to consider the proposition. By August, he had mapped out the outline in a letter to Robert Reid.
From then on, there was to be no change, only development. He was adamant that this was to be a crowning piece of exposition, providing Robert Reid was in the background. He agreed to work with Adrian Malone, because both had learned lessons in past experience together. In a letter to Bob Reid, he was adamant that he would not share the screen with other scientists. I think that this was not a pre-empting vanity, but, rather, a wish that his line of exposition should not be broken by changes in thought pattern, voice or style. The Ascent of Man was conceived as essentially a personal statement, as confidentially as self-centred, as, for instance, Wagner's Ring - and on the same scale.
What made Bruno such a good broadcaster? First, there was his early experience. he said in an interview with George Derfer, published in American Scholar in 1974.
Certainly, his use of English (his experience is reminiscent of Joseph Conrad) is a triumph of imagery and lucidity.
At this stage, I should perhaps note that JB was, thank God, not good at everything. He was bad at demonstration. Give him a piece of equipment he would suddenly become all fingers and thumbs. On screen, he was not good with people…it was partly the sets and partly the breaking-up of his thought and speech patterns, and partly (one suspects) his small physical stature - although off-screen, he was perfectly relaxed about this.
In a broadcast in the radio series, Frankly Speaking, (17.1.64) just before he went to the Salk Institute, being questioned toughly by John Maddox, then editor of Nature, as to why he was leaving Britain he replied that, when at University, he had been there with Cockcroft, Chadwick and Kapitza (in fact, Kapitza and he played chess for Cambridge) and had been at the centre of events in a revolution in physics. At the Salk, with his new colleagues, Szilard, Delbecco, Orgel and Crick, he had a chance to play his part in the second great scientific revolution, the biological revolution.
He knew that human beings were the centre and not an epicentre of science. That is why the piece of science that gave him great pleasure, and that he frequently quoted, was his work in 1950 and 1951 on the teeth of Australopithecus, in which he was able to show statistically that Australopithecus was either an ancestor of Man or a closely-related species which has become extinct. The line of man had begun by that time.
"I was carried away by this," he says in his American Scholar interview, "It was exciting for someone who had only done abstract geometry till then - whose first practical use of mathematics had been during the war - to see this wonderful illumination of the past history of man. So I never turned back. That is the incident that made me aware that there is something in individual animals, what animal behaviourists call 'species-specific' character, which one should look for in human beings in order to understand their uniqueness."
Hence his choice, and indeed, invention, of a new field of science, 'human specificity'.
When taxed with being a scientist, Bruno would always demur. He was, he said, simply a mathematician. He was more than that, he was a polymath - a philosopher-scientist. Ideally, I suspect, he would have liked to be considered a humanist magus and I use this word in the meaning of John Keyne's description of Newton as 'the last of the wizards'. He was, if you like, in the tradition of the seventeenth-century magus. I hope, and personally believe, that he will go down as a great name who 'regarded science as part of humanities' endeavour.'
Site Copyright © 2001 by Stephen Moss. All rights reserved.