cover image The Ascent of Jacob Bronowski: The Life and Ideas of a Popular Science Icon

The Ascent of Jacob Bronowski: The Life and Ideas of a Popular Science Icon

Timothy Sandefur. . Prometheus, $25 (384p) ISBN 978-1-63388-526-4

Attorney Sandefur (Frederick Douglass: Self-Made Man) reintroduces one of the 20th century’s major science popularizers with this first biography of Jacob Bronowski (1908–1974), best known for his 1970s BBC TV series, The Ascent of Man. Exhaustive research, including interviews with Bronowski’s widow, Rita, and his daughter Lisa, and deep dives into Bronowski’s papers, enables a comprehensive account. After briefly describing Bronowski’s childhood in Poland and Germany and his family’s 1920 emigration to England, Sandefur traces his growth into a noted intellectual polymath, beginning in earnest with his Cambridge mathematics studies. During WWII, Bronowski used his knowledge for his adopted country by employing geometry to construct models to scale of German targets based on newspaper photographs, which Sandefur suggests may have significantly contributed to the Allied victory. However, after helping to assess the effects of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombings, he “resolved to take no further part in the making of weapons of mass destruction.” He became widely known through the 1960 book The Western Intellectual Tradition, and also significantly contributed to evolutionary biology and medical research—in all, “nearly every major intellectual undertaking of the 20th century.” Throughout this lucid account, Bronowski comes across as a complex and fascinating figure whose own writings merit a renewed readership today. (July)