Wednesday, 29 August 2001

Jacob Bronowski: The Ascent of Man (1973)

Edition: BBC, 1976 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 926

Like Kenneth Clarke's Civilisation, The Ascent of Man is a series looked up to by every producer of factual, educational TV programmes. It probably wouldn't get made today, as its broad canvas is not really fashionable, and it is not about ordinary people. Its subject is the history of science, far removed from the pseudo-anthropology of "Reality TV".

The arrangement of material is a little unusual; it is basically thematic, each chapter tracking a particular subject (evolution, or the structure of matter, say) to modern times. The coverage of each theme is also slightly idiosyncratic and yet is exceptionally clear, even when not accompanied by the TV picture (the text sometimes refers to footage, which can be slightly confusing).

After thirty years, a fair amount is out of date, but much remains to form an excellent introduction to basic modern scientific ideas, including some of the best explanations of relativistic travel and a wonderful demonstration of Pythagoras' Theorem.

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