A History of Science
Tome I
Tome II
Tome III Tome IV

Book 2, chapter III
Medieval science in the West
Roger Bacon
Bacon was born in 1214 and died in 1292. By some it is held that he was not appreciated in his own time because he was really a modern scientist living in an age two centuries before modern science or methods of modern scientific thinking were known. Such an estimate, however, is a manifest exaggeration of the facts, although there is probably a grain of truth in it withal. His learning certainly brought him into contact with the great thinkers of the time, and his writings caused him to be imprisoned by his fellow-churchmen at different times, from which circumstances we may gather that he was advanced thinker, even if not a modern scientist.

Although Bacon was at various times in durance, or under surveillance, and forbidden to write, he was nevertheless a marvellously prolific writer, as is shown by the numerous books and unpublished manuscripts of his still extant. His master-production was the Opus Majus. In Part IV. of this work he attempts to show that all sciences rest ultimately on mathematics; but Part V., which treats of perspective, is of particular interest to modern scientists, because in this he discusses reflection and refraction, and the properties of mirrors and lenses. In this part, also, it is evident that he is making use of such Arabian writers as Alkindi and Alhazen, and this is of especial interest, since it has been used by his detractors, who accuse him of lack of originality, to prove that his seeming inventions and discoveries were in reality adaptations of the Arab scientists. It is difficult to determine just how fully such criticisms are justified. It is certain, however, that in this part he describes the anatomy of the eye with great accuracy, and discusses mirrors and lenses.

The magnifying power of the segment of a glass sphere had been noted by Alhazen, who had observed also that the magnification was increased by increasing the size of the segment used. Bacon took up the discussion of the comparative advantages of segments, and in this discussion seems to show that he understood how to trace the progress of the rays of light through a spherical transparent body, and how to determine the place of the image. He also described a method of constructing a telescope, but it is by no means clear that he had ever actually constructed such an instrument. It is also a mooted question as to whether his instructions as to the construction of such an instrument would have enabled any one to construct one. The vagaries of the names of terms as he uses them allow such latitude in interpretation that modern scientists are not agreed as to the practicability of Bacon's suggestions. For example, he constantly refers to force under such names as virtus, species, imago, agentis, and a score of other names, and this naturally gives rise to the great differences in the interpretations of his writings, with corresponding differences in estimates of them.

The claim that Bacon originated the use of lenses, in the form of spectacles, cannot be proven. Smith has determined that as early as the opening years of the fourteenth century such lenses were in use, but this proves nothing as regards Bacon's connection with their invention. The knowledge of lenses seems to be very ancient, if we may judge from the convex lens of rock crystal found by Layard in his excavations at Nimrud. There is nothing to show, however, that the ancients ever thought of using them to correct defects of vision. Neither, apparently, is it feasible to determine whether the idea of such an application originated with Bacon.

Another mechanical discovery about which there has been a great deal of discussion is Bacon's supposed invention of gunpowder. It appears that in a certain passage of his work he describes the process of making a substance that is, in effect, ordinary gunpowder; but it is more than doubtful whether he understood the properties of the substance he describes. It is fairly well established, however, that in Bacon's time gunpowder was known to the Arabs, so that it should not be surprising to find references made to it in Bacon's work, since there is reason to believe that he constantly consulted Arabian writings.

The great merit of Bacon's work, however, depends on the principles taught as regards experiment and the observation of nature, rather than on any single invention. He had the all-important idea of breaking with tradition. He championed unfettered inquiry in every field of thought. He had the instinct of a scientific worker - a rare instinct indeed in that age. Nor need we doubt that to the best of his opportunities he was himself an original investigator.





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© Serge Jodra, 2006. - Reproduction interdite.