The most powerful 4 minutes of science communication ever

Prepping for my intro class today, we’re wrapping up the unit on basic Mendelian genetics and a little more. The students are now supposed to understand monohybrid and dihybrid crosses, chromosomes, and the principle of gene mapping. So today we’re going to talk about how genetics has been and can be abused, and how we have a long way to go before we fully understand inheritance. Yeah, we’re going to talk about eugenics and modern distortions of genetics. It’ll be depressing.

Then, to make it even more difficult, I’m sending them home with some reading and an assignment to watch this video of an old man with a funny accent just talking.

We’ll be talking about the subject of ethics in science on Thursday. I can’t let students walk away from instruction in elementary genetics thinking it’s simple and that they’ve been handed the keys to absolute certainty and comprehensive knowledge of the human condition. We’ve got enough of those people.


  1. fusilier says

    NdeG Tyson has all but said he wanted to be Carl Sagan when he grew up.

    But Sagan wanted to be Jacob Bronowski when he grew up.

    fusilier, who watched Ascent of Man on PBS more years ago than he cares to admit

    James 2:24

  2. billseymour says

    I, too, watched The Ascent of Man when it was first broadcast in the US; but I don’t mind admitting that I turned 77 last month since facts are facts. 8-)

    I remember thinking how wonderful it is that H. sapiens can actually do science.  It’s too bad that too few of us can experience what Feynman called The Pleasure of Finding Things Out.

  3. quotetheunquote says

    Jacob Bronowski, and this series, were two of the most powerful influences on my life, as a teenager. Without even referring to the video, I can basically replay this scene in my head – “this is where people were turned into numbers…” he says at one point, and that is the part that is most deeply engraved into my brain. The message was incredibly powerful then, is incredibly powerful now.

  4. chiel says

    Like quotetheunquote I had the privilege of watching this when it was first broadcast in the early 70s here in the UK, I was a young teenager and the effect this series had on me , and this sequence in particular has never left me to this day,
    And for those non US viewers it may please you to know that we have Sir David Attenborough to thank for this series , while head of BBC 2 in the late 60s he commissioned this program and pushed for it – another reason to revere this man as though we don’t have enough

  5. says

    I watched the Ascent of Man when it first came out and it was a wonderful introduction to understanding science and discovery in the context of humanity. This final scene from the series has always stayed with me.

    I don’t know if this account is true, but a friend who was an educator told me that when the decision was made to turn the series into a book, the editors were astonished to find that Bronowski spoke on camera in full paragraphs. Before the camera began filming, he would review notes on an index card and then begin speaking. He was an amazing man of science and mathematics.

  6. Rob Grigjanis says

    They don’t make ’em like that anymore. Here he is on Parkinson;

    I could listen to him all day.

  7. Doc Bill says

    I remember watching that series live on PBS. Bronowski walking into that pond was the most impactful statement I have ever seen. Remains so still.

  8. says

    When we were young, in the 1950’s, my cousin and I thought we could learn everything there was to know about ‘science’ and use that to create marvelous things. As we grew and learned, we realized that, in our desire and arrogance, the expansion of what was known made is like men running after an accelerating train: our minds would never be able to encompass it all. We both learned that science is a tool, a good tool, but just a tool. We came to accept that we needed to expand our knowledge to include an element of caring (wisdom) to temper the desire for facts (knowledge). Our book Omniascendence explains that.

  9. pacal says

    What I remember most about this scene is the image of Jacob Bronowski dipping his hand into that pond and picking up a black clump and then realizing that clump is largely human ash!!!

  10. Rich Woods says

    @Ray Ceeya #4:

    OOPS JAMES Burke. Raymond Burk was an author philosopher who basically founded modern conservatism.

    I think you mean Edmund Burke…

  11. PaulBC says

    Ray Ceeya@4 Not to be confused with Raymond Burr, who played Perry Mason, not to be confused with Aaron Burr… oh forget it.

    I should go back and watch Ascent of Man. I had many opportunities to see it as a teen on PBS and watched Cosmos religiously. I don’t know if it just seemed too old fashioned or what.

  12. petesh says

    Before his mega-fame, when I was about 16 (I am younger than billseymour but not much), Bronowski gave a lecture at my school with the title: Why is the sky dark at night? It is, I think, still the best, most provocative yet precise, fascinating lecture I have ever heard. Such a simple question, but it led to discussion of, quite literally, the entire universe. Blew my mind, as we used to say. If you haven’t seen the TV series, go watch it.

  13. nomaduk says

    There are three — well, okay, four — series from that era that should be required viewing, even today. Kenneth Clarke’s Civilisation, Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man, Burke’s Connections, and Sagan’s Cosmos. Those four represent a height of televised intellect that hasn’t been matched since, and a humanistic, cosmopolitan perspective on the world that is sorely lacking in those who vie to lead us.

  14. submoron says

    That was what sprang to my mind on ‘9/11’when i heard. THE civilised human ideal to my very limited understanding.

  15. unclefrogy says

    My experience of Bronowski and the accent of man was one of my most profound experiences. as he talks and explains clearly requires no belief, as he walks into the water and reaches down and explains where he is he does so without any protective clothing on at all, the watery mud goes right over the tops of his good shoes I have never seen any sign of reverence any more profound in my life.

  16. Ridana says

    @15 & 17: I think pacal meant himself having that shocking realization, rather than implying that Bronowski didn’t know it.

  17. says

    I saw this when it was first broadcast on the BBC. I was 13 at the time and still remember it vividly almost half a century later.