I have a confession to make. Before being chosen for the 2016 Jacob Bronowski Award Lecture, I knew little about the man the Award is named after. Perhaps because he died before I was born, and his famous BBC TV Series The Ascent of Man had aired many years before, I recognised his name but didn’t appreciate his incredible contribution to the field I work in. My reading about him since, though, has been rather thrilling. As a mathematician, poet and science historian, Bronowski embodies two seemingly different worlds: science and the arts. What’s more, he is arguably the most influential person of the 20th century in bringing the two together.

A graduate of Cambridge University, Bronowski’s contribution to the field of science was eclectic. It included developing the mathematical bombing strategies of RAF aircraft during the Second World War, documenting the effects of the atomic bombs in Japan, comparing the dentistry of apes and australopithecines, working as Director of Research on the UK National Coal Board and acting as Associate Director of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in California. Being an artist himself and a lover of arts, he also worked on a collection of poetry with the American poet Laura Riding, wrote a biography of poet William Blake, married the sculptor Rita Coblentz and worked as visiting professor of history at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Embodying these two passions in his life, one of Bronowski’s pivotal areas of contribution was on the relationship between science and the arts. He disagreed with suggestions that science and the arts are opposites. Instead, he most famously expressed his own views on the topic in a collection of essays on the arts, literature and science, entitled The Visionary Eye and in his world-famous 1973 BBC TV series The Ascent of Man, about the development of human society through its understanding of science. Some of Bronowski’s main arguments were against the following truisms:

Science embodies reason while art embodies the imagination
In The Visionary Eye, Bronowski proposed that imagination involved the manipulation of mental images; something that was in essence the same whether it involved designing new abstract shapes for a painting or conjuring mathematical symbols to represent quantities and entities. In The Ascent of Man he argued “the symbol and the metaphor are as necessary to science as to poetry”. Far from being a differentiator, he saw imagination as being one of the key linking features of the arts and science.

Science is reductionism and limitation while art is synthesis and freedom
In The Ascent of Man, Bronowski called it “a popular cliché in philosophy…that science is pure reductionism, like taking the rainbow to pieces, and art is pure synthesis, putting the rainbow together.” Indeed, he quite simply stated “This is not so.” Instead, in The Visionary Eye he argued that “art and science belong to the everyday of human action, and are essentially human because they explore the freedom which man’s intelligence constantly creates for him”.

Science discovers while art creates
Bronowski also pointed out in The Visionary Eye the strange terminology by which only artists’ achievements, not scientists’, count as ‘creations’, as though artists have done something new whereas scientists have merely discovered what was already there. In The Ascent of Man he said “The discoveries of science, the works of art are explorations — more, are explosions, of a hidden likeness. The discoverer or the artist presents in them two aspects of nature and fuses them into one. This is the act of creation, in which an original thought is born, and it is the same act in original science and original art.”

Instead of constructing these abstract dichotomies, Bronowski suggested that the arts and sciences working together represented the pinnacle of human achievement. In an essay entitled ‘Architecture as a Science and Architecture as an Art’ in The Visionary Eye, he pointed out that a shelter can be built in a purely functional way and serve its purpose. But our freedom of choice as humans enables us to move beyond the utility and into the realm of the beautiful, creating buildings that go so much further than function and instead add a richness to our world.
Bronowski’s wife, Rita, summed up his contribution beautifully, saying “He was an extraordinarily whole person…a thinking man, an endangered species. All his life he treated art and science as the same expression of the human imagination. The theme of the imagination ran like a bright ribbon through the fabric of his thought.“

I’d already planned what I wanted to talk about at the British Science Festival before I started my research on Bronowski. However, I was rather surprised at how many elements of my presentation resonated naturally with Bronowski’s work. In my Award Lecture talk at the Festival, I will be taking the audience on a journey back in time. I will consider how the artform of music was used by our early ancestors and what purpose it served, questioning whether the science of survival and the art of life pleasure were really dichotomous or whether the arts served an evolutionary purpose. I will be discussing the theories of some of the greatest scientists who ever lived, such as Charles Darwin’s arguments about music in his book The Descent of Man on which the title of Bronowski’s famous TV series was based. And I will be exploring whether this scientific approach to the arts is merely a way of reducing one of life’s beauties to a series of dehumanised numbers, or whether understanding more about the impact of music on our immune system could help us celebrate and enjoy the arts with greater vigour. Appreciating the enormous contribution that Bronowski made to these ideas, and more broadly the field I now work in, will make giving the lecture in his name even more of a privilege. I hope some of you will join me there.

Daisy Fancourt's award-winning lecture 'Can music change the immune system' is taking place at 11:30am on 9 September at the Taleisin Theatre, Swansea. To book free tickets, or find out more about the other 121 events at the British Science Festival, click here.