One long-ago evening as I sat contemplating a picture in a book - Leonardo Da Vinci's Lady with a Stoat, reproduced in Jacob Bronowski's little volume of essays, Science and Human Values - my daughter, then 7, looked over my shoulder. "What's that picture?" she asked. "Is there a story of it?"
For Bronowski, there was more than one story. The girl, as he explains, was probably a mistress of Lodovico Sforza, the usurper of Milan, at whose violent court Leonardo then lived; the stoat (an ermine) was Sforza's emblem, and likely also a pun on the girl's name.
But the bigger story was how the painter had chosen to depict his subject: "Leonardo has matched the stoat in the girl. In the skull under the long brow, in the lucid eyes, in the stately, brutal, beautiful and stupid head of the girl, he has rediscovered the animal nature. ... The very carriage of the girl and the stoat, the gesture of the hand and the claw, explore the character with the anatomy. ... The Lady with a Stoat is as much a research into man and animal, and a creation of unity, as is Darwin's Origin of Species."
How to sum that up for a child? I pointed out how the artist had painted the lady to look like the animal she held in her lap, and how this "echo" helped make the painting beautiful. My daughter gazed briefly at the picture, then ran off to play. Later that evening, she brought me a new crayon drawing. A horizontal line divided the page into water and sky. In the sky was a kite, its long tail strung with colourful bows; under the water, a large fish led a procession of colourful baby fishes. I couldn't prove that our "Bronowski moment" had inspired this drawing, but it was hard to believe it hadn't.
Jacob Bronowski - mathematician, physicist, biologist, humanist, lover of the arts, incomparable teacher, passionate believer in progress - was best known for his 1973 BBC documentary series The Ascent of Man, which placed science in the context of human history, defended it against those who claimed it was a dehumanizing force, and traced its role in the development of culture.
I doubt that anyone who saw it will ever forget the ending of one particular episode in that series: when Bronowski, standing by the pond at Auschwitz, faces the camera and says, "Into this pond were flushed the ashes of some four million people. And it was not done by gas. It was done by arrogance. It was done by dogma. It was done by ignorance …" then slowly walks into the water with his shoes on, saying, "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," suddenly bending down to scoop up a handful of wet mud as he speaks the words, "We have to touch people."
The three essays that make up Science and Human Values - The Creative Mind, The Habit of Truth and The Sense of Human Dignity - were first given as lectures at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1953, and published as a book in the United States in 1958. In them, Bronowski began to develop the ideas that later gave shape to The Ascent of Man. They are not long essays. They are dense with thought and information, but lucid in style and beautifully written. And they have lost none of their relevance. At a moment when our world is in desperate need of creative thinking and clear values, these essays shine a light on the nature of human creativity in both science and the arts, on the human impulse to question and explore, and on our responsibility to safeguard the civilizing spirit at the heart of this impulse.
In The Creative Mind, Bronowski claims there is a "likeness between the creative acts of the mind in art and in science," that scientific discoveries and works of art begin alike with the search for unity in the variety of our experience, by exploring perceived resemblances between disparate things. "What is a poetic image," Bronowski asks, "but the seizing and the exploration of a hidden likeness, in holding together two parts of a comparison which are to give depth to each other?"
He points out that when the astronomer Kepler tried (albeit fruitlessly) to relate the speeds of the planets to musical intervals, he was thinking poetically - "feeling for his laws by way of metaphors" - and that by a similar intuitive leap, centuries later, scientists did in fact find "a model for the atom in, of all places, the planetary system." A line of Shakespeare, a painting by Leonardo, a scientific theory: Bronowski bridges the gap between modes of thought often assumed to be diametrically opposed, and calls upon civilized man to preserve the values of creative inquiry for the common good.
Science and Human Values begins powerfully with a memory of Nagasaki, through the ruins of which Bronowski in November, 1945, was transported by jeep to join a ship at harbour - a ship on which the loudspeaker, as they approached in the dusk, was playing a popular dance tune called Is You Is Or Is You Ain't My Baby. Bronowski claims the book was born at that moment, in the shocked recognition of the wasteland in which he found himself. On that site of devastation he understood that the subject of his inquiry must be "civilization face to face with its own implications." And in a stunning metaphor of his own, he elucidates these for us as he launches it: "The implications are both the industrial slum which Nagasaki was before it was bombed, and the ashy desolation which the bomb made of the slum. And civilization asks of both ruins, 'Is You Is Or Is You Ain't My Baby?'"
We need to be asking Bronowski's questions.
Poet Robyn Sarah is the author most recently of Little Eurekas: A Decade's Thoughts on Poetry.