Constructing Britain’s “Intimate Science,” Perpetuating the British Military-Industrial Complex: Jacob Bronowski and the Ascent of Man (BBC, 1973)

Sunday, January 5, 2020
3rd Floor West Promenade (New York Hilton)
Jelena Culibrk, University of Southern California
The graffiti “Shoot all scientists” was painted on a London wall in 1945 as a reaction to Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. One of the first British apologists for nuclear science was the mathematician Jacob Bronowski, a Polish-emigre back from Japan as part of the Official British Mission. Although World War II ended with these explosions the position of British science, nuclear science in particular, was uncertain. The condition was dire, Bronowski concluded, but scientific work must resume. If halted, the consequences would be devastating for “humankind.” This blurry rhetoric had a pragmatic political purpose for post-Imperial Britain. By establishing the 1946 McMahon Act, Britain’s closest ally the United States halted nuclear cooperation, while the Soviet Union successfully exploded its first A-bomb in August 1949. Economically impoverished, and with a failed “Third-way” foreign policy, post-Imperial Britain turned to its pre-War media network.

Newspapers, documentary and fiction cinema were employed in constructing the new post-Imperial nation and attracting much-needed young scientific personnel. Technocratic science, epitomised under the term “military-industrial complex,” was personalised through British media outlets. These media efforts culminated in the first televised history of science The Ascent of Man (1973, BBC) with Bronowski as the series’ host. I argue that Jacob Bronowski and the BBC played a crucial role in cementing the position of postwar science as an important international endeavour. By researching the newly opened Jacob Bronowski Archive (Jesus College, University of Cambridge), this presentation shows how the The Ascent of Man’s revolutionary visual techniques (i.e., “invisible” historical recreations, on-screen depictions of archival documents, and early computer animation) influenced current televised representations of history. What started as a domestic response to postwar Britain’s national and scientific crisis resulted in global television’s historiographic practice.

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