14919. (Brian Clegg) The First Scientist, A Life of Roger Bacon

This ends a project of mine to inves­ti­gate Roger Bacon, the thir­teenth cen­tury Fran­cis­can friar who wrote about the pos­si­bil­i­ties of sci­en­tific inquiry. His work was sup­pressed in his life­time, and he spent most of it impris­oned by his order, and forced to bribe his keep­ers to smug­gle in writ­ing paper. His vast (for the time) col­lec­tion of books and exper­i­men­tal appa­ra­tus dis­ap­peared in the tur­moil of war. Since then, his rep­u­ta­tion has suf­fered extremes of inter­pre­ta­tion. Renais­sance pop­u­lar cul­ture saw him as an occultist and magi­cian. It was claimed, among other absur­di­ties, that he pos­sessed a talk­ing head of brass. His unre­lated name­sake, Fran­cis Bacon, expro­pri­ated many of his ideas and received the credit for them. Some nine­teenth cen­tury his­to­ri­ans praised him, struck by his prophetic asser­tions that inquiry into nature would make it pos­si­ble to observe the stars and very small things with prop­erly arranged lenses, that we would some day cre­ate fly­ing machines and “cars” that move with­out the help of ani­mals, that we would be able to record and replay sounds, and for his pre­cise chem­i­cal for­mula for gun­pow­der. But twen­ti­eth cen­tury his­to­ri­ans tended to down­grade him to a “pre-scientific” curiosity.

I can’t help but think that this is the result of the absense of eas­ily avail­able trans­la­tions of his work, com­pared to the ready avail­abil­ity of Fran­cis Bacon’s Advance­ment of Learn­ing and Novum Organum. There was noth­ing crude of occult about Roger’s notions of a nat­ural sci­ence based on obser­va­tion and exper­i­ment. In fact, he firmly rejected all super­nat­ural inter­pre­ta­tions, and pre­sented his ideas with greater con­sis­tency and clar­ity than Fran­cis did. He also grasped the impor­tance of math­e­mat­ics for quan­ti­fy­ing data, which Fran­cis failed to do. Roger Bacon was just not lis­tened to. His work fell on deaf ears because soci­ety was not suf­fi­ciently advanced to make use of it. Fran­cis Bacon pre­sented a watered-down ver­sion of it, at a time when Europe was ready to listen.

My impres­sion, after read­ing some of Roger Bacon’s work, and what bio­graph­i­cal mate­r­ial I could get hold of, is that he was one of the major intel­lects of his time, per­haps smarter and more astute than his con­tem­po­rary rival, Thomas Aquinas. He was inspired, like Aquinas, by the Greeks and the bril­liant Mus­lim philoso­phers and nat­u­ral­ists. But, unlike Aquinas, he was far less inclined to jam these sources into a pre­con­ceived Chris­t­ian ortho­doxy. He com­plained that Aquinas never proved any­thing that he had not decided he was going to prove before he started. That was the dif­fer­ence between them, and the dif­fer­ence between a the­olo­gian and a sci­en­tist, in a nutshell.

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