Tuesday, 27 November 2007

The Ascent of Man

I recently bought the BBC series "The Ascent of Man" on DVD. This is a 13-part series on the evolution of human civilisation, presented and narrated by Jacob Bronowski. What brings back a rush of nostalgic memories is the fact that I saw this series when I was a boy, and I'm thankful for the eclectic, science-oriented upbringing I was privileged to have.

My father was a professor at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) in Bangalore, and I grew up on the campus. It was a small, cosy campus and a teenager could walk from one end to the other quite easily. I've done that countless times, climbing over the back walls of departments in the evenings looking for "treasure". My friends and I (all children of faculty) took great pleasure in raiding the dumps outside the chemistry departments (there were three of them, - Organic Chemistry, Physical Chemistry and Biochemistry, - and Organic Chemistry was our favourite). We would scavenge half-used bottles of benzene and similar chemicals and take them home to do experiments. (Did you know that thermocol dissolves in benzene with a most satisfying fizz?)

My dad was quite indulgent and would chuckle about my "experiments" when he walked into a room reeking of recently-burnt plastic or some such. I doubt if I'd let my son do such dangerous experiments today (we've lost the element of risk-taking in today's world, as I mentioned in another post).

We were a group of nerds, I realise now. I don't know what ambitions normal kids used to have, but my close campus friends and I knew what we were going to do - we were going to become scientists and cure cancer, winning the Nobel Prize for Medicine in the process. And we knew exactly how we were going to do it, too. Just inject cancer cells into squirrels, then extract the cancerous growths, dry them to "weaken" the cells, and inject them into healthy people. Voila! A cancer vaccine! (I think it was better for humanity that the two young geniuses who thought of that ended up in the software industry instead.)

They used to hold educational film shows some evenings in some of the departments, and a whole lot of professors' kids used to turn up at these. One of these educational shows was "Civilisation" by Kenneth Clark, which I found a bit boring at the time, but which I think I would like to see now. Another one was "The Ascent of Man". I remember this series quite vividly. The wireframe computer graphics shown seemed highly advanced in the seventies. Now I have a chance to see the series again, and I'm able to understand it much, much better. Jacob Bronowski is a genius. He can tie together science, technology, history, economics and a bunch of different disciplines and tell a convincing story of how we came about. (He's no more, but I feel like referring to him in the present tense because I'm still watching the series).

I would recommend "The Ascent of Man" to anyone interested in science. And I'm once again grateful for a weird and wonderful childhood spent in the innocence of scientific exploration.
Post a Comment