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My childhood hero: Jacob Bronowski

December 5, 2011

bronowskiWhat do you want to be when you grow up?

I remember being asked that question when I was four or five years old, and answering:  I want to be like Jacob Bronowski.  It made the adult asking that question laugh, because she could not imagine a small child who knew of Bronowski, much less one adopt him as a personal hero.

But in retrospect, I must say, the child Theophrastus had excellent taste.  Today it strikes me that among the public intellectuals of the 1970s-2000 period, he was one of the most responsible, most interesting, and most articulate.   Despite being (unfairly and unreasonably) blackballed by the British establishment, and facing considerable snobbery, he made contributions in chess, in the study of literature,  in mathematics, in the application of mathematics, in poetry, in international affairs, in biology, in popularization of science, in writing college level textbooks, and as a spokesman for the life of the mind. 

Many of his excellent books are still in print today (such as The Origins of Knowledge and Imagination, The Western Intellectual Tradition, A Sense of the Future, and Science and Human Values.)

His role in helping to found the Salk Institute helped to change the institution of science in the late 20th century.

Sure there are more important intellectuals and scientists than Bronowski.  But some of the most brilliant and articulate are difficult (or impossible) to admire as people, and I can think of none as well-balanced as Bronowski. 

For at least one small child (and the adult he grew into), Bronowski is a role model.  You can keep your Dawkins and Hitchens and Chomsky and (Thomas) Friedman and Habermas and Krugman and (Steven) Pinker and (Jared) Diamond and Rorty and Fukuyama and (Niall) Ferguson and (Brian) Greene.  I still like Bronowski.

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