Monday, 14 September 2015

On a Bacon hunt

Roger Bacon is a misty figure in the history of science. Over the years, this thirteenth century friar has been portrayed as a mystic, magician, scientist ahead of his time and second rate collector of other people's ideas. It doesn't help that he often gets confused with his unrelated (as far as we are aware) Elizabethan namesake Francis Bacon. But it is in part because of the messy way that Roger has been reported over the years (even starring in a play by one of Shakespeare's contemporaries) that he is a fascinating subject.

My book on Bacon and his science has an intentionally provocative subtitle. I ought to make it clear that in many ways he clearly wasn't the first scientist. Apart from the impossibility of coming up with a 'first' and the argument that you couldn't have a scientist before the word was coined (a terrible argument to my mind - you might as well say there weren't dinosaurs before the word was coined), Bacon was pretty bad on most of the requirements to call someone a scientist. But he did try most of them. He emphasised the essential contribution of maths long before it was fashionable (Francis wasn't impressed with maths, for instance), Roger went on at great length about the importance of experiment, rather than relying on received wisdom, he risked his life to communicate science and he was a scourge of those who claimed to be magicians (ironic, given that he would later be regarded as one himself). Bacon was pretty bad on scientific matters, but the reason I do give him this tongue-in-cheek label is that I would expect an early person to fit a label to be bad at the role. By the time you get to Galileo and Newton they were far too polished.

But the point of this post isn't to put the case for Bacon, which was never intended to be taken too seriously. Instead it's a chance to share some photos of an attempt to track down Bacon in his main academic home, Oxford. He was in Oxford when the university was just beginning, both as a member of the university and of the Franciscan friary there. I did find a few traces of Bacon - but you might think there'd be a little more.

Admittedly he gets a lane, suitably small and near the sprawling location of the Franciscan friary, mostly now brutalist overpasses and uninspiring modern buildings. According to legend, at some point he had a study in the building that spanned Folly Bridge on the southern approach to the city. The building certainly existed, though there was no reason to link it to Bacon.

But that structure is long gone. It narrowed the bridge to a single track and was totally unsuited to modern traffic. Now the bridge is an uninspiring bit of architecture you could drive over without even realising you were on a bridge.


But surely Oxford could not fail to mark the presence of one of its few chances to eclipse Cambridge in the scientific field? There is indeed a plaque to Bacon in Latin and English, reflecting his one-time label of Doctor Mirabilis.


Unfortunately, the siting of the plaque could be better. It is on the side of a multi-storey car park, another of Oxford's delightful replacements for the friary:


Still, there is one place where it feels as if Bacon is being given his due. Oxford's gorgeous natural history museum contains a series of statues of scientific figures, and there, amongst the skeletons, is Roger in all his glory. Of course we've no idea what he looked like, but I think it's right that he should be remembered.


Update: I gather the car park with the plaque is being demolished (my visit was last year). Any Oxford locals know what is happening to the plaque?

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