Jacob Bronowski

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Jacob Bronowski (January 18 1908, Łódź, Poland–August 22 1974, East Hampton, New York, USA) was the presenter of the BBC documentary series The Ascent of Man, which inspired Carl Sagan's Cosmos series.

Sourced

  • I grew up to be indifferent to the distinction between literature and science, which in my teens were simply two languages for experience that I learned together.
    • From Wakeman, J., 1975: World Authors 1950–1970 (New York: H.W. Wilson), pp. 221–223
  • Dissent is the mark of freedom.
    • From Bronowski, Jacob, 1965: Science and Human Values (New York: Harper & Row)
  • The world can only be grasped by action, not by contemplation.
  • Of course it's tempting to close one's eyes to history, and instead speculate about the roots of war in some possible animal instinct: as if, like the tiger, we still had to kill to live, or, like the robin redbreast, to defend a nesting territory. But war, organized war, is not a human instinct. It is a highly planned and cooperative form of theft. And that form of theft began 10,000 years ago when the harvesters of wheat accumulated a surplus and the nomads rose out of the desert to rob them of what they themselves could not provide. The evidence for that, we saw, in the walled city of Jericho and its prehistoric tower... That is the beginning of war.
    • From the "Harvest of the Seasons" episode from The Ascent of Man
  • The Principle of Uncertainty is a bad name. In science, or outside of it, we are not uncertain; our knowledge is merely confined, within a certain tolerance. We should call it the Principle of Tolerance. And I propose that name in two senses. First, in the engineering sense: Science has progressed, step by step, the most successful enterprise in the ascent of man, because it has understood that the exchange of information between man and nature, and man and man, can only take place with a certain tolerance. But second, I also use the word, passionately, about the real world. All knowledge – all information between human beings – can only be exchanged within a play of tolerance. And that is true whether the exchange is in science, or in literature, or in religion, or in politics, or in any form of thought that aspires to dogma. It's a major tragedy of my lifetime and yours that scientists were refining, to the most exquisite precision, the Principle of Tolerance – and turning their backs on the fact that all around them, tolerance was crashing to the ground beyond repair. The Principle of Uncertainty or, in my phrase, the Principle of Tolerance, fixed once for all the realization that all knowledge is limited. It is an irony of history that at the very time when this was being worked out, there should rise, under Hitler in Germany and other tyrants elsewhere, a counter-conception: a principle of monstrous certainty. When the future looks back on the 1930s, it will think of them as a crucial confrontation of culture as I have been expounding it – the ascent of man against the throwback to the despots' belief that they have absolute certainty.
    • From the "Knowledge or Certainty" episode from The Ascent of Man
  • It's said that science will dehumanize people and turn them into numbers. That's false, tragically false. Look for yourself. This is the concentration camp and crematorium at Auschwitz. This is where people were turned into numbers. Into this pond were flushed the ashes of some four million people. And that was not done by gas. It was done by arrogance, it was done by dogma, it was done by ignorance. When people believe that they have absolute knowledge, with no test in reality, this is how they behave. This is what men do when they aspire to the knowledge of gods.

    Science is a very human form of knowledge. We are always at the brink of the known; we always feel forward for what is to be hoped. Every judgment in science stands on the edge of error and is personal. Science is a tribute to what we can know although we are fallible. In the end, the words were said by Oliver Cromwell: "I beseech you in the bowels of Christ: Think it possible you may be mistaken."

    I owe it as a scientist to my friend Leo Szilard, I owe it as a human being to the many members of my family who died here, to stand here as a survivor and a witness. We have to cure ourselves of the itch for absolute knowledge and power. We have to close the distance between the push-button order and the human act. We have to touch people.

    • From the "Knowledge or Certainty" episode from The Ascent of Man
  • Fifty years from now, if an understanding of man's origins, his evolution, his history, his progress is not in the common place of the school books, we shall not exist.
    • From "The Long Childhood" episode from The Ascent of Man.
  • These are the moments when the powerful mind or the forceful character feels the ferment of the times, when his thoughts quicken, and when he can inject into the uncertainties of others the creative ideas which will strengthen them with purpose. At such a moment the man who can direct others, in thought or in action, can remake the world.
    • From "The Common Sense of Science", on the influence of Isaac Newton.

Attributed

  • Sooner or later every one of us breathes an atom that has been breathed before by anyone you can think of who has lived before us – Michelangelo or George Washington or Moses.
  • The most remarkable discovery ever made by scientists, was science itself.

External links

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