Relative interests

Jacob Bronowski, one of the 20th century's great public intellectuals, was born 100 years ago this week. Matthew Reisz speaks to his daughter Lisa Jardine.

January 17, 2008

It was really lucky I was a girl," says Lisa Jardine. "I think I'd probably have had a nervous breakdown if I'd been a boy. But the gender difference meant my father never felt threatened by me and I never wanted to be him. Instead, I acquired a complete fearlessness about knowledge - there isn't anywhere I won't go."

Jardine, Centenary professor of Renaissance studies at Queen Mary, University of London, has written acclaimed books on Francis Bacon, Erasmus, Shakespeare, William the Silent and Christopher Wren. She has never been afraid to cross disciplinary boundaries and to reach out to wider audiences as a public intellectual. To that extent, she is very much the daughter of another great popularising and boundary-crossing intellectual: Jacob Bronowski, born in Lodz, Poland, a century ago this week.

"My father raised me to believe there was no subject that was too difficult to communicate to an ordinary well-educated person," Jardine explains. "They would follow your argument as long as they were never told it was too difficult. That is a principle I was brought up on, and one I still work by. I just emulate his burning desire to spread serious knowledge as widely as possible."

Bronowski (1908-74) once wrote that he arrived in the UK, aged 12, able to "speak, rather badly, two words of English, which I had learnt on the Channel boat". Yet he went on to study mathematics at the University of Cambridge, lectured at the University of Hull, worked as a researcher at the National Coal Board and became a household name through regular appearances on The Brains Trust television debates of the 1950s.

His media presence gave him a prestige it is hard to imagine today. "At the time of The Brains Trust," Jardine point out, "7 per cent of the relevant age group went to university. Now 40 per cent does, so the relationship with public intellectuals is very different from the one of tugging your forelock that my father enjoyed. Then the attitude was very much 'Dr Bronowski knows everything', as satirised in a wonderful Monty Python sketch. Nobody tugs their forelock to public intellectuals any more, but that's a reflection of a higher educational level across the board. If I give a talk, people will come up to me quite boldly to challenge what I've said or put in their two bits."

Yet his high media profile also closed down options for Bronowski, at least in Britain. "He was looking for some sort of intellectually challenging post," Jardine says, "but it was true in the early Sixties that once you'd done television you couldn't get a serious academic job. So he had to be a public intellectual outside the academy, whereas my university not only encourages but revels in the fact that a few colleagues and I move seamlessly between having high reputations within the academy and being regarded as trustworthy voices as public intellectuals."

In 1964, therefore, Bronowski moved to California to become director of the Salk Institute. It was while there that he embarked on his most celebrated project, The Ascent of Man (1973), a pioneering 13-part TV series surveying the development of the sciences.

Bronowski was an intellectual to his fingertips whose wide-ranging interests rode roughshod over traditional barriers between disciplines. "The arts are important in the curriculum because they express the human condition directly," he wrote, "and as cogently as the sciences expound it."

In a lecture at a time of student unrest in 1971, he argued boldly that "the great need, the great experiment in education, is to put together a central core of personal knowledge for teachers and students, a natural philosophy of man whose parts truly represent the constituents of modern culture". He went on to sketch out a core university syllabus centred on biology, anthropology and the dramatic arts. The aim of his TV series was equally ambitious - "to create a philosophy for the 20th century which shall be all of one piece".

&#8220In that milieu I gained the conviction that imaginative problem-solving is at the root of all human inventiveness, in the sciences and the humanities”

Although "very, very conscious that I am my father's daughter", for many years Jardine found his fame a burden. When she married for the first time, she (unlike most women in her circle) deliberately took her husband's name. "When I lost the name Bronowski in 1968, I was desperate to get away from it - I couldn't even sign a cheque without someone asking: 'Are you related to Dr Bronowski?' I didn't like being regarded as the shadow of my famous dad. Until 1999, the name Bronowski never occurred in cuttings about me, and it was broadly unknown that I was his daughter."

It was only with the publication of her own major study of the scientific revolution, Ingenious Pursuits, that Jardine felt confident enough to dedicate it "to my father Jacob Bronowski, who showed me the way". Her research also led back to him, by a rather eerie roundabout route, when she decided to undertake a biography of the inventor and architect Robert Hooke (1635-1703).

The only previous book on Hooke, by Margaret Espinasse, dated back to 1956 and proved impossible to track down until Jardine's own was well under way. When she finally got a chance to look at the introduction she was startled to read: "It may be supposed that the life of a great and controversial figure in the history of English science ought to be written by someone with scientific training. I am aware of my disabilities and should not have dared to undertake this book but for the encouragement of Dr J. Bronowski ... Its existence is primarily owing to him."

"I have no memory of my father ever mentioning Hooke. It's spooky," Jardine says.

In many ways, her father's example has proved an excellent model for her own career. They both produced works of high scholarship, which formed a springboard for writing aimed at a more general audience such as her "new history of the Renaissance", Worldly Goods (1996). He wrote poetry and pursued his passion for literature even while teaching mathematics. She too has never regretted her refusal to be typecast. "Until I was 30, people kept reproaching me for not making up my mind what I was going to do, being a dilettante in too many fields, but then overnight in my thirties I became a multidisciplinary person. Interdisciplinarity became voguish, and I was one of those people who could span several areas - I definitely feel empowered by that."

Even their perspectives often overlap. Bronowski's Science and Human Values (1956), which is still taught on history of science courses, was, Jardine says, "absolutely of its moment. He was one of the team of scientists who went into Nagasaki after the bomb was dropped, and his attitude to the responsibility of scientists stems directly from that". Yet she shares his belief in the fundamental value of science and his contempt for romantic retreats into irrationality.

In the introduction to Ingenious Pursuits she writes: "I grew up in a harmonious household in which the 'two cultures' coexisted peacefully. My mother's hands shaped figures out of clay, my father's described for us the primitive movements of flint on stone by which 'man the tool-maker' struck fire. At mealtimes, Newton's theory of gravitational pull and the poetry of William Blake were discussed in the same breath ... In that environment I gained the conviction that imaginative problem-solving is at the root of all human inventiveness, both in the sciences and the humanities."

Intellectual history obviously progresses, with each generation rejecting some of the received wisdom of the previous one. Bronowski co-authored a book on the glories of The Western Intellectual Tradition. His daughter has co-authored one that argues that "the boundaries between ... East and West were thoroughly permeable in the Renaissance". Had she ever consciously set out to attack some of his assumptions or ideas?

Her reply pays moving tribute to him, both as a daughter and a fellow scholar. "I never consciously either emulated or challenged my father, though I did challenge the received wisdom of the generation before. I'm in the comfortable position that I admired what he did and knew I had acquired a whole set of communications and information-processing skills in that household to enable me to do whatever I wanted. I was 30 when he died, and those first 30 years were an extraordinary grounding in the intellectual universe."

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