Francis Bacon versus the Greeks
Mary Parker

Francis Bacon versus the Greeks

How a philosopher known as the Father of Scientific Method fought the ancient army of tradition, in an era when new discoveries fell on deaf ears    

Francis Bacon, born in 1561 near London, was a minor statesman under both Queen Elizabeth I and King James I. He served as Attorney General of England and Wales and later as Lord High Chancellor of England, performing no political acts of any significance. As a politician, he barely merits a footnote. But as a philosopher, he is known as the Father of the Scientific Method.

I mention Bacon in the introduction to this month’s episode of Sounds of Science, where I spoke with Antti Nurmi, Director of Science at Charles River's Discovery Research Services site in Kuopio, Finland, about the relationship between open science and modern pharma. Bacon was a great believer in what we now think of as open science, or free, publicly available knowledge. In his utopian novel New Atlantis, Bacon described a society that collects and stores data for public use, and where people who bring in knowledge are known as “merchants of light.”

There is another aspect of modern science, however, that we take for granted – the belief that there are still new things to discover. In Bacon’s time, scholars believed that the ancient Greeks knew everything, and that there was nothing left to uncover. If a scientist thought he had made a new discovery, no one would listen unless he could dredge up an obscure ancient text to back him up. 16th century scholars thought Aristotle and Plato were humanity’s first and last perfect geniuses. Even Nicolaus Copernicus, who caused controversy in his own time by daring to claim that the Earth orbited the Sun, tied his theory to obscure passages from Cicero and Plutarch.

Francis Bacon was one of the first, and loudest, to rebel against ancient authority. Throughout his adult life he wrote that science was being stifled through unquestioning reliance on the ancients. While agreeing that Aristotle was a genius, he argued that it didn’t take extraordinary genius to contribute to the sum of human knowledge, and that even Aristotle made mistakes.

The most obvious sign of Aristotle’s fallibility took place at a developmentally crucial time for Bacon. Just one year before Bacon started school at Trinity College, astronomer Tycho Brahe’s infamous discovery had appeared in the sky. According to Aristotle, the heavens were perfect and unchanging. Each star was an incorruptible sphere, fixed and unmoving, while the Earth alone was rugged and changeable through the contamination of humanity. But to the amazement of astronomers all over the world, a new star appeared in November 1572 in the constellation Cassiopeia. Its dramatic arrival was overshadowed only by its unexplainable departure in 1574.

We now know that this was a supernova, a term attributed to Brahe. It was the bright flash of an exploding star, briefly visible from Earth before finally dying out. This phenomenon is a common occurrence in the universe, something modern astronomers are barely interested in. But at the time, that new star exploded a thousand years of traditional scientific thought and inspired a generation of Bacons to question everything that was being drilled into them in school. After all, what teenager could resist pointing out such a glittering error in their professor’s lessons?

Human curiosity being what it is, we would almost certainly have arrived at Bacon’s conclusion eventually. Someone was bound to point out how limiting it was to tie everything back to the ancients, and there would have been a Scientific Revolution either way. But without that star, and without Bacon’s constant prodding, how much longer would true progress have been delayed?