June 13, 2003

The First Scientist, Brian Clegg

Subtitle: A Life of Roger Bacon

Not a gripping story, not by the author's fault, nor the subject's. Bacon probably had a gripping life - theological and scientific controversy, not that he would have distinguished between the two - but it takes a summary of 13th century religious politics to explain why. Maybe he was imprisoned in durance particularly vile, without even the sacrament of confession; there is a gap in his known writing, and a story of his having been imprisoned. There are also stories of his having made a brass head speak and having attended colleges not founded until after his death. Plenty of the book is on later misrepresentations of Bacon (as author of the Voynich manuscript, for instance).

Still, Clegg's last chapter makes an argument for Bacon's having nailed together the four legs of science. He lists these -

  • the importance of mathematics;
  • what we would call objectivity without personal bias;
  • communication with other scholars; and
  • experimental verification.
These seem a respectable historical foundation for the scientific method; the odd thing is that Roger Bacon left some evidence of not being good at math, and hardly perfect at checking results before reporting them, and he principally communicated to the Pope Clement IV, before that man's early death. There are excuses; expense and the rules of his order made many of these difficult. A little more worrying is that the evidence has to come from a tiny proportion of the Opus majus - a proposal for a research and library grand plan for science - the Opus minus, a summary of the ...majus, and Opus tertium, a précis of the summary - a million words by Clegg's reckoning. If suspicious, one would want to weigh the modern against the medieval. Boethius¹ and even Herodotus² said some things more scientific than credulous.

So maybe Roger Bacon wasn't a great scientist in the modern sense, but would have been a worldshaker if he ran a university; except that he ran through an enormous family fortune, and wasn't good at politics or diplomacy. Clegg argues that his failure to bend to authority is part of his nascent scientific worldview; that seems very fair. Clegg also describes him as more a theoretician of how applied science should have been done than an applied scientist, and that also seems fair.

Update: at least one manuscript partly by Roger Bacon has been scanned and put online by the Bodleian; and it has annotations by John Dee.

ISBN: 0-7867-1116-7

¹ That "everyone knows" a plant is a machine for making other similar plants.

² He is, I think, often respectably cautious in saying when he is reporting tales heard from travellers; early anthropology.