This lesson examines the contributions of Sir Francis Bacon to science. We take a long hard look at the scientific method, with special emphasis on experimental science. Then we briefly examine how Bacon sold science to the world.
Francis Bacon: Prophet of Science
Every great shift in human thinking has its founding prophet: a person ahead of their time, a true visionary who imagined a different way of looking at the world. Buddhism has the Buddha. Christianity has Jesus. Islam has Muhammad. Science has Sir Francis Bacon.
When Francis Bacon was born in 1561, the Bible was considered the ultimate authority. People thought the Earth was at the center of the universe, and science was so intertwined with religion that the greatest minds of the time were arguing about how many angels could dance on a pin head.
By the time Bacon died in 1626, a new sort of authority had taken root in Europe: scientific proof. Galileo had established scientific proof that the Earth orbited the Sun, and the first divisions between religion and science had begun to appear, as the greatest minds of the time struggled to reconcile scientific proof with religious faith.
Bacon inspired the Scientific Revolution through his work
Such sweeping changes in a single lifetime should give us some notion of how rapidly the world was transforming at the turn of the 17th century. To credit Bacon alone with these changes would be to overlook the efforts of his many contemporaries and successors. Bacon was not the cause of this transformation. In fact, Bacon made few scientific discoveries of any real note. Instead, Bacon was the prophet of this new age - he wrote its laws, and provided its inspiration.
The Scientific Method
Bacon's vision allowed him to see this new scientific way of looking at the world before it ever existed. Yet Bacon's true genius lies in the methods he provided to make this vision possible. Bacon realized that his fellow Europeans were never going to learn anything new so long as they kept looking for answers in the Bible or in the works of classical philosophers. No matter how deeply they thought about these concepts, no matter how many compelling arguments they might invent, the scholars of Europe essentially had been treading the same ground for centuries.
Bacon proposed a new way to unlock the secrets of nature: the scientific experiment.
Nature is chaotic, with many factors influencing everything we perceive. The simple fall of a leaf from a tree involves laws of gravity pulling the leaf down, laws of meteorology governing the wind, and laws of aerodynamics governing how the leaf responds to that wind. In nature, these laws are all mixed up, so we don't know which laws govern what. Moreover, the sheer irregularity of nature makes it almost impossible to measure. No two leaves are alike, and even if they were, they would not fall in the same way, due to the countless other factors influencing them - the wind, their position, their height - all of these things. How can we possibly hope to learn anything from nature when nature is so disorderly?
Bacon's solution was simple yet profound. ''To learn about Nature, we have to pull Nature out of her comfort zone. We need to put Nature in a place where we control as many of the factors as possible and make her perform the same activity again and again. Only then can we begin to eliminate the factors that confuse our attempts to understand nature.'' So what was Bacon talking about?
Prior to Bacon, scholars focused on the same biblical and classical philosophies for centuries
The Benefits of Experimental Science
Let us return to our example of the falling leaf. Let us say we are trying to determine the laws that affect how leaves fall. As we saw above, a wide variety of factors influence how each leaf falls: wind, air resistance, and gravity. Moreover, since no two leaves are exactly the same and each leaf falls from a different point, we could watch a thousand leaves fall and be no closer to our answers.
Imagine trying to learn anything from this chaos. You'd have to weigh and measure each leaf. You'd have to run around with a tape measure, figuring out which twig each leaf fell from. You'd have to record where the wind was coming from and how fast, at every moment. You'd have to measure the density of the air beneath each individual leaf. In short, learning anything from the random falling of leaves from a tree is all but impossible.
So the first way we might apply Bacon's theory would be to drop the same leaf from the same height, over and over again, thereby controlling at least some of these factors. Now instead of worrying about how all leaves fall, we're just trying to discover how this leaf falls.
Yet we'd still keep getting a wide variety of behaviors from our dropped leaf, since the wind would sometimes be blowing and sometimes it wouldn't. If we moved our experiment indoors, we could eliminate another factor, the impact of the wind.
Yet even with this improvement, our leaf is still not always falling in exactly the same way, although we're getting closer. The simple laws of gravity are still confused by the resistance of the air. So let's remove the factor of the air. Let's put our leaf in a bell jar and remove the air.
And wouldn't you know it, the leaf falls the same way, at the same rate, every time. If we repeat this process enough and measure it closely, we could determine that the falling leaf accelerates at a rate of 9.8 meters per second per second. And if we expanded this, and tried it with other objects, we would discover that, in a vacuum, everything from leaves to feathers to basketballs to jellybeans fall at an accelerating rate of 9.8 meters per second per second. And just like that, we've discovered a law of gravity.
Newton followed the scientific method from Bacon to discover the law of gravity
Now Bacon did not discover this law - Isaac Newton did, a few decades later. However, Newton made this discovery by following Bacon's approach. Take the things we see in nature out of the chaos of nature, and tinker with them in an environment that we control. That is the essence of the scientific method. Bacon's foundational work in this field has earned him the title 'Father of Experimental Science.'
So we've seen how Bacon served as a prophet of this new scientific age. We've seen how his experimental method laid the foundations for modern science. These contributions alone would be enough to write Bacon's name large in the pages of history.
Yet Bacon did more than predict the scientific revolution, and his contributions were not limited to the scientific method. Arguably Bacon's greatest contribution to the world of science was his incredible optimism and enthusiasm. Bacon didn't just predict and codify science - he sold it to the world.
Bacon thought science would fix all of mankind's problems. He envisioned an age of constant invention, where every day brought new technology to make man's life better and easier. With science we could feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and heal the sick. By understanding nature, we could transcend her limits, and forge a new world, a better world for everyone.
Bacon voiced his scientific ideals in many treatises and books. One of my favorites is his story of New Atlantis. In this story, Bacon paints a vision of a Utopian society based on scientific principles. The people of New Atlantis do not hoard gold or other material goods. Everyone has everything they need, provided by the advances of science. Instead, they trade these earthly goods around the world, in exchange for the greatest of all treasures: knowledge.
Today, Bacon's vision may seem like dewy-eyed naïveté. Anyone who has seen battlefields torn asunder by scientifically-perfected killing machines knows that science, like any other tool, is only as good or evil as the hand that wields it.
But 400 years ago, Bacon's enthusiastic optimism inspired generations of thinkers to make his vision a reality. In many ways the Enlightenment, the Scientific Revolution, and the Industrial Revolution are all examples of humanity trying to fulfill Bacon's lofty dream of the future. Their efforts built the world we know today.
To review, Sir Francis Bacon lived from 1561 to 1626. In those 65 years, the way in which Europeans understood the world began to change dramatically, as religious belief slowly lost ground to scientific fact as the ultimate authority in Europe. Francis Bacon was the prophet of this movement. He saw this change coming before anyone else did. Bacon was also one of the founders of this movement. He laid the groundwork for the Scientific Revolution by establishing the scientific method of experimentation. Finally, Bacon was the evangelist of science. Bacon's optimistic vision of the promise of scientific progress inspired generations of thinkers to make Bacon's dream a reality.
At the close of the lesson, you should be able to:
- Identify Francis Bacon and discuss his legacy
- Explain the introduction of the scientific method
- Consider the benefits of experimental science and how it's impacted our understanding of the world