When I was growing up. Jacob Bronowski was a presence on the telly. He was the scientist, the boffin, who could be relied upon to explain science to the rest of us. In 1973, he presented a ground-breaking series, The Ascent of Man, that gave him a platform to present his humanist view of the role that science has played in the development of our species.
The bit that sticks in my mind, that probably sticks in everybody’s mind who saw the series, is the scene where he is ankle-deep in a muddy pool in Auschwitz, and he suddenly bends down to bring up a handful of mud before the camera, while talking to us in that faintly-accented voice of his. Except that this is not mud, this is ash. The ash of millions of human beings who were consumed by the ovens of the Nazis. I can never watch that scene without being overwhelmed.
Last night, I saw that scene again. It was part of a documentary, My Father, The Bomb and Me, presented by the historian Lisa Jardine. She is his daughter, and she explored aspects of his life that she knew little of. For example, the fact that he worked in operations research during WWII, designing more effective bombs, and she wondered how she could reconcile that with the loving father that she remembered.
Her documentary succeeded brilliantly, bringing to life a man who was both humane and who was deeply affected by remorse at some of the things that he had to do in his life. The depth of that remorse was expressed by the simple act of cleaning his glasses in public on a talk show. It sounds ridiculous, but watching his daughter watch the video of that sequence with her seeing the deeper meaning in what he was doing as he carefully sought for the just words to answer the interviewer’s question made everything come clear, and the thought arise, in my mind at least, that here was a good man doing the best he could, as he always had done.