Roger Bacon

Was Roger Bacon Europe's first real scientist?

This 13th-century English monk recognized that going to the source of phenomena was the surest way to understand them.

Roger Bacon

Statue of Roger Bacon at Oxford

Bacon was born in Ilchester, in Somerset, around the time King John granted the English nobles some important rights in the Magna Carta of 1215. Education was apparently an important value in his family, and he went to Oxford University probably at about age 13.

Bacon lectured at the University of Paris and pursued a life of dogged intellectual inquiry at a time when unorthodox opinions were dangerous — even fatal. At about the age of 40, he became a Franciscan friar, which limited his ability to publish his works, as any writings had to be approved by his order.

About 10 years later, though, his friend Guy le Gros de Foulques became Pope Clement IV. During the few years of Clement's reign, Bacon published his Opus Maius, about science and theology, and other works.

Bacon understood that mathematics was crucial to understanding science. He refused to accept received knowledge without testing out its tenets with experiments — and at the time, the scholarly world was all about received knowledge from the ancients.

He created the first useful maps in hundreds of years by re-introducing map projections, he was a pioneer in the field of optics, and he began a reformation of the calendar that was adopted hundreds of years later by Pope Gregory XIII.

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Spontaneous generation and Francesco Redi

Some small organisms are visible to the eye, at least in large numbers. Thousands of years ago, people came up with an explanation for the sudden appearance of mold on bread, maggots on meat, mice in grain: The creatures came to life spontaneously in decaying organic matter.

The theory of spontaneous generation — the belief that under the right circumstances living organisms could come into being without parents — was the target of perhaps the first real scientific experiment, in 1668.

That was the year that the Italian physician Francesco Redi set out to prove his idea that maggots came from eggs laid by flies. This was no fluke: Redi was an intellectual who belonged to prestigious literary societies and undertook many experiments over the course of his life.

Francesco Redi
Francesco Redi

He had also been a member of the Accademia del Cimento, an early scientific society founded by the Medicis in Florence.

Redi set out three groups of jars containing rotting meat. One group he closed completely, one he covered with gauze, and one he left completely open.

As time went on, flies enter the uncovered jars. They landed on the gauze on the partially covered jars. However, there were no flies around the totally covered jars.

Later, many maggots appeared on the meat in uncovered jars. A few maggots appeared on the meat in the partially covered jars. No maggots showed up on the meat in the totally covered jars.

Redi's use of several jars for each situation showed that his results could be replicated, an important aspect of any scientific experiment.

Redi had proved that flies had to be present on or around the meat for maggots to generate. His work began to raise doubts about spontaneous generation, though it was a long time before it was truly put to rest.

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Pitti Palace, incubator of the scientific method

By 1657, the plague was largely spent and the Catholic Church was becoming a little choosier about its battles, especially given the spread of the Protestant Reformation.

In Italy, the Renaissance was winding down. Science had become so intrinsic to intellectual life that Leopoldo De' Medici, who was both a prince and, later, a Catholic cardinal, opened his private chambers in the Pitti Palace in Florence to a new scientific academy, the  Accademia del Cimento. ("Cimento" means "trial.")

Lion from the Pitti Palace
Lion from the Pitti Palace

Leopoldo and his brother, Grand Duke Ferdinando II of Tuscany, founded, and funded, the academy, which would meet for just 10 years. Its influence would last much longer.

Ferdinando had supported Galileo's experiments and had tried unsuccessfully to nudge the Church toward accepting them in the spirit of exploration. In the 1640s, he opened the Boboli Garden, the grounds of the Pitti Palace, his official residence, to experiments with thermometers, poultry incubators and other instruments.

Galileo's spirit hovered over the academy. Its motto was "provando e riprovando" — "testing and re-testing." Founding members included Galileo's students, like Vincenzo Viviani, who with fellow academy member Giovanni Alfonso Borelli, worked on experiments to pin down the speed of sound waves.

Another member was the physician Francesco Redi, who performed what is considered the first scientific experiment.

Distractions to the patrons, and quarrels among the members, doomed the academy. Its last act was the publication of a compilation of members' work, Examples of Natural Experiments, which in its Latin translation influenced the European scientific community profoundly, becoming essentially the science textbook for at least 100 years.

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The lynx-eyed ones

Science was all the rage among progressive young aristocrats in the 17th century. In 1603, in Rome, Federico Cesi and other science-mad young men founded the Accademia dei Lincei, which has endured, in a decidedly broken line, down into our time as Italy's national science academy.

The society, which took its name from the lynx pictured on the title page of Giambattista della Porta's book, Natural Magic, represented an ambitious bid to decipher the mysteries of the natural world. The lynx was admired for its keen eyesight which, metaphorically, the Academy's members hoped to apply to their scientific investigations.

Accademia dei Lincei

Accademia dei Lincei

While European intellectuals had begun sharing their thoughts in the 16th century, this new academy was the first really seminal scientific body, inspiring imitators all over Europe and introducing the notion that the free flow of information among men of science would push forward the communal body of knowledge.

Early members included Della Porta himself, as well as the celebrated Galileo Gallilei, who was so thrilled with the honor that he included a reference to the society on the title pages of all his subsequent books.

Science made officials of church and state nervous enough that one of the charter members of the Academy, Johannes Eck, a Dutchman, was banished for a time. While he traveled around Europe, Eck spread the word about the society's work.

The Academy published Galileo's Letters on Sunspots in 1613 and The Assayer in 1623. When the authorities of the Catholic Church turned against Galileo and his radical new ideas, which included the Copernican assertion that the earth revolves around the sun, rather than vice versa, which is how the Bible sets things out, the Academy supported him.

Galileo later recanted his heliocentrism, which didn't keep him from spending his last days under house arrest. This was a gentler fate than the church was used to handing out to heretics, like Giordano Bruno (who did not recant). Bruno was executed.

The support of academies like the Lincei began to make the world less lonely, and perhaps even a safer place, for these early scientists to assert the truth as they saw it.

Practical magic

The first European society for scientific inquiry was probably the Academy of the Mysteries of Nature, which met in the home of Giambattista della Porta, in Naples, Italy, beginning in 1560. Membership was open to anyone who could produce an original discovery in the field of natural science.

Giambattista della Porta
Giambattista della Porta

Della Porta was the author of Natural Magic, a 20-volume encyclopedia of popular science, written in Latin and published first in 1558.

Della Porta had the idea that much of what had come down through the ages as magic actually represented early, and often unwitting, incursions into areas that science was only then beginning to explain.

He and his society undertook to test various magical cures and activities to see if they had any merit. The academy would endorse only practices it had vetted. In other words, its members were practicing a rudimentary form of the scientific method.

The Academy of the Mysteries of Nature was short-lived. It was ordered closed by the Catholic Church after the Inquisition charged that the academy was involved in sorcery.

Not only did della Porta comply with the order, but he also became a Jesuit brother before his death in 1615.