Friday, 21 March 2014

Finding Roger - #1 - Get The Right Bacon

It is over ten years now since I wrote my book about Roger Bacon. Purely by coincidence I find myself writing two separate magazine features with a flavour of Bacon about them - so I thought it would be interesting to blog an occasional series of posts about some of the aspects of the the great RB that won't be appearing in the articles.

For this first entry in the series, I want to make one thing very clear. There is more than one kind of Bacon, and you need to get the right one. I am not thinking Kevin Bacon here. Even in the history of science there are two Bacons to contend with. When I first told a friend I was writing a book about the thirteenth-century proto-scientist Roger Bacon, he was surprised. 'Surely,' he said, 'Bacon lived in Elizabethan times?' This astonishingly original thinker has been obscured by the shadow of his inferior namesake, Francis Bacon.

For the sake of clarity, there is, as far as we know, no relation between Francis Bacon and Roger Bacon. Francis (the Elizabethan) was primarily a politician, but was one of the first to explicitly lay out the scientific method. Roger, the medieval Franciscan friar was a natural philosopher. He seems to have performed some experiments, and certainly wrote an awful lot about science.

In my book, in tongue-in-cheek fashion, I labelled him The First Scientist. This isn't a label that can really be applied, but it's useful, if only to wind up history of science nerds. They will tell you:
  • He couldn't be a scientist, as the term wasn't invented until 1834. (In an analogy from 'artist'. If an artist did art, then surely a scientist did science?) This is total rubbish. To suggest you can't be something until it is named is like saying that dinosaurs didn't exist until we gave them names. Rhubarb.
  • He didn't do any science, he just wrote about it. This isn't true. There is reasonable evidence he did some experiments, and certainly developed some original theories. He was more a theoretician than an experimental scientist - but then so was Einstein. Bacon was mostly incorrect, but then most were back then.
  • He didn't understand what we now call science, depending too much on the word of authority. His understanding was certainly not modern - he was of his time. But he did emphasise the importance of experiment at great length, running entirely counter to the ancient Greek view, he stressed that maths was essential for science, and there is a lot of science in his 'books'*. What is definitely true is that he wasn't a good scientist in the modern sense - but why you expect the first person to achieve something to be good at it? They'd be borderline rubbish, I would have thought.
In reality there can be no definitive first (and if there were, Roger isn't it), but Roger was certainly an early and prominent example of someone who was determined to find out more about nature and communicate his results, and we should cherish him, rather than dismiss him as many seem to these days.

* I say 'books' in inverted commas because most of Bacon's surviving writing is actually a book proposal, not truly a book. But what a proposal. The first volume runs to 600,000 words...



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