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Not Merely the Finest TV Documentary Series Ever Made

A reflection on Bronowski’s “The Ascent of Man.”

A range of dark hilltops appears against a dawn sky. On a ridge in the far distance we can discern a human silhouette. It is some-…By David Deutsch

A range of dark hilltops appears against a dawn sky. On a ridge in the far distance we can discern a human silhouette. It is some- one telling us about the uniqueness of Man. “Man ...” says the tiny figure in the landscape, “is not a figure in the landscape ...”

“He is the shaper of the landscape,” continues Jacob Bronowski, dwarfed by the looming hills that have not been reshaped since the last ice age.

When a narrator expresses a paradox, it should be regarded as a promise to explain something amazing. Bronowski, in this historic 13-part television documentary, delivered on his promises.

He was a one-off. A patrician British academic, he had arrived in Britain at the age of 12 in the aftermath of World War I, speaking no English. He and his family were Jewish refugees from Łódź in the Russian Empire (now Poland). One of the 20th century’s most eloquent advocates of Western values, he was denied senior positions at British universities because (according to his daughter, the historian Lisa Jardine) MI5 mistakenly suspected him of being a communist sympathizer. A powerful intellect of unusual breadth and originality, he was never lucky enough to make the spectacular discovery that would have got him recognized as a great mathematician or scientist, but he made contributions to mathematics, poetry, paleontology, history, moral philosophy, and—during World War II—strategic bombing. Despite his hatred of war in general, he believed it would be pious humbug to stand aside from making the world a better place through winning a war. He wrote books (mostly collections of his electrifying public lectures) and became a respected media pundit. But he is, rightly, best known for his last project, The Ascent of Man (1973), in my view the finest television documentary series ever made ...


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David Deutsch has done seminal work on quantum computation and is a member of the Centre for Quantum Computation at the Clarendon Laboratory, Oxford University.

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