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Jacob Bronowski (18 January 1908 – 22 August 1974) was a Britishmarker mathematician and biologist of Polish-Jewish origin. He is best remembered as the presenter and writer of the 1973 BBC television documentary series, The Ascent of Man.

Life and work

Jacob Bronowski was born in Łódźmarker, Congress Polandmarker, Russian Empiremarker in 1908. His family moved to Germany during the First World War, and then to Englandmarker in 1920. Although, according to Bronowski, he knew only two English words on arriving in Great Britain, he gained admission to the Central Foundation Boys' Schoolmarker in Londonmarker and went on to study at the University of Cambridgemarker.

As a mathematics student at Jesus College, Cambridgemarker, Bronowski co-edited — with William Empson — the literary periodical Experiment, which first appeared in 1928. Bronowski would pursue this sort of dual activity, in both the mathematical and literary worlds, throughout his professional life. He was also a strong chess player, earning a half-blue while at Cambridge and composing numerous chess problems for the British Chess Magazine between 1926 and 1970. He received a Ph.D. in mathematics in 1935, writing a dissertation in algebraic geometry. From 1934 to 1942 he taught mathematics at the University College of Hull. For a time in the 1930s he lived near Laura Riding and Robert Graves in Majorcamarker.

During the Second World War Bronowski worked in operations research, and afterward became Director of Research for the National Coal Board in the UKmarker. Following his experiences as an official observer of the after-effects of the Nagasaki and Hiroshima bombings, he turned to biology, as did his friend Leo Szilard, to better understand the nature of violence. Bronowski was an associate director of the Salk Institutemarker from 1964.

Jacob Bronowski married Rita Coblentz in 1941. The couple had four children, all daughters, the eldest being the British academic Lisa Jardine and another being the filmmaker Judith Bronowski.

In 1950, Bronowski was given the Taung child's fossilized skull and asked to try, using his statistical skills, to combine a measure of the size of the skull's teeth with their shape in order to discriminate them from the teeth of apes. Work on this turned his interests towards the human biology of humanities intellectual products.

In 1967 Bronowski delivered the six Silliman Foundation lectures at Yale Universitymarker and chose as his subject the role of imagination and symbolic language in the progress of scientific knowledge. Transcripts of the lectures were published posthumously in 1978 as The Origins of Knowledge and Imagination and remain in print.

He first became familiar to the British public through appearances on the BBC television version of The Brains Trust in the late 1950s, but is better known for his thirteen part series The Ascent of Man (1973). This was an inspiration for Carl Sagan to make Cosmos in 1980. During the making of The Ascent of Man, Bronowski was interviewed by Michael Parkinson, and Bronowski's description of a visit to Auschwitzmarker — he had lost many family members during the Nazi era — was described by Parkinson as one of his most memorable interviews.

Jacob Bronowski died in 1974 of a heart attack in East Hamptonmarker, New Yorkmarker a year after The Ascent of Man was completed, and was buried in the western side of London's Highgate Cemeterymarker, near the entrance.


  • The Poet's Defence (1939)
  • William Blake: A Man Without a Mask (1943)
  • The Common Sense of Science (1951)
  • The Face of Violence (1954)
  • William Blake: The Penguin Poets Series (1958)
  • The Western Intellectual Tradition, From Leonardo to Hegel (1960) - with Bruce Mazlish
  • Biography of an Atom (1963) - with Millicent Selsam
  • Insight (1964)
  • Nature and Knowledge: The Philosophy of Contemporary Science (1969)
  • William Blake and the Age of Revolution (1972)
  • The Ascent of Man (1974)
  • A Sense of the Future (1977)
  • Magic Science & Civilization (1978)
  • The Origins of Knowledge and Imagination (1978)
  • The Visionary Eye: Essays in the Arts, Literature and Science (1979) - edited by Piero Ariotti and Rita Bronowski


The Ascent of Man placed sixty-fifth on a list of the 100 Greatest British Television Programmes drawn up by the British Film Institute in 2000 that was voted for by industry professionals. Charlie Brooker praises Bronowski and The Ascent of Man on his BBC 4 programme, Charlie Brooker's Screenwipe.


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