Monday, February 27, 2012

Ascent of man

I noticed an interesting set of pictures on the BBC web site today, they show some past and present views of the Auschwitz concentration camp stitched together; the missing thing in the present version is of course the people, which I suppose gives the images an added note of poignancy.

Whenever I see or read things about the holocaust I'm always put in mind of Jacob Bronowski's emotional speech at the end of one of the episodes in the 70s TV series "The ascent of man" which he delivers whilst standing ankle deep in the pond at Auschwitz into which the ashes of so many lives were flushed, he says -

It is said that science will dehumanize people and turn them into numbers. That is false, tragically false. Look for yourself. This is the concentration camp and crematorium at Auschwitz. This is where people were turned into numbers. Into this pond were flushed the ashes of some four million people. And that was not done by gas. It was done by arrogance. It was done by dogma. It was done by ignorance. When people believe that they have absolute knowledge, with no test in reality, this is how they behave. This is what men do when they aspire to the knowledge of gods.

Science is a very human form of knowledge. We are always at the brink of the known, we always feel forward for what is to be hoped. Every judgement in science stands on the edge of error, and is personal. Science is a tribute to what we can know although we are fallible. In the end the words were said by Oliver Cromwell: "I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken".

I owe it as a scientist to my friend Leo Szilard, I owe it as a human being to the many members of my family who died at Auschwitz, to stand here by the pond as a survivor and a witness. We have to cure ourselves of the itch for absolute knowledge and power. We have to close the distance between the push-button order and the human act. We have to touch people.

Such economy of words is hard to find in TV presenters these days.

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