Life-and-times biography of the English friar whose scientific work prompted accusations of heresy.
The main traces of Roger Bacon (ca. 1220–92) in the historical record consist of his own writings, which make little reference to the details of his life. We know he attended and taught at Oxford and the University of Paris, that he became a Franciscan, that he was ordered by Pope Clement IV to write an overview of natural philosophy, that he spent his later years in prison. The rest is guesswork; much of the biographer’s task consists of separating truth from the Faust-like legends that grew up around him. British science writer Clegg compensates by grounding Bacon in the context of his age. For example, the £2,000 that the friar spent on books and experiments over the course of 20 years is an astonishing total, considering that the king’s revenue in 1217 was £35,000. Bacon was the first European to describe gunpowder, though Clegg points out that his formula is of little use as an explosive. Nor did he perform as many experiments as his contemporary Peter Peregrinus. What makes Bacon the founder of science, in the author’s view, is his insistence on the primacy of mathematics, his openness to information whatever the source, a willingness to communicate ideas (if only to the educated elite), and belief in experiment. These were radical ideas in the 13th century, when mathematics was widely confused with conjuring, and adopting ideas from non-Christian sources smacked of heresy. Bacon’s scientific career was cut short by the death of Clement, whose patronage protected him though the pope probably never read his books. The church then prevented him from writing; even his proposal for calendar reform was ignored by authorities for nearly three centuries.
Tantalizing glimpses of a progressive thinker who never lived to see his ideas bear fruit, but Clegg ultimately falls short of making a case for Bacon as “the first scientist.”