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The First Scientist takes us back to thirteenth-century Europe, to the early years of the great universities, where learning was spiced with the danger of mob violence and a terrifyingly repressive religious censorship. Roger Bacon, a humble and devout English friar, seems an unlikely figure to challenge the orthodoxy of his day - yet this unworldly man risked his life to establish the basis for true scientific knowledge.
Born around 1220, Bacon was passionately interested in the natural world and how things worked. Banned from writing on such dangerous topics by his Order, it was only when a new Pope proved sympathetic that he began compiling his encyclopaedia of knowledge, on everything from optics to alchemy - the synopsis took him a year and ran to 800,000 words, but he was never to complete the work itself. Sadly, the enlightened Pope died before he could read Bacon's remarkable work, and Bacon was tried as a magician and incarcerated for ten years.
Legend transformed Bacon into a sorcerer, 'Doctor Mirabilis', yet he taught that all magic was fraudulent, based on human ability to deceive, and we can recognise today that his books were the first flowering of the scientific knowledge that would transform our world. He advanced the understanding of optics, he demanded a new calendar that prefigured the Gregorian reform, made geographical breakthroughs later used by Columbus, predicted everything from horseless carriages to the telescope, and stressed the importance of mathematics to science, a significance that would not be recognized for 400 years.
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Brian Clegg studied physics at Cambridge University and is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. He has written a number of popular science books including A Brief History of Infinity, Light Years, The God Effect and Before the Big Bang.From Booklist:
When science and Bacon occur in the same sentence, the Bacon meant is usually Francis (1561-1626), said to have formulated the scientific method. Clegg says it should be Roger (c.1220-92), the first person to argue that "natural philosophy" (i.e., science) should be based in mathematics, undertaken with an open mind, communicated to others, and, most important, conducted by experimentation. A son of wealth, Roger went to Oxford at 13 to prepare for a calling. He became an experimenter, theorist, and writer who, disdaining magic, expected phenomena to be rationally explicable. He spent a fortune, presumably his family's, on books and equipment. When the Bacons lost their holdings, Roger joined the Franciscans, which required giving his belongings away but opened the door to church sponsorship. A friendly pope's death and the accession of a hostile general of the Franciscans put Roger in solitary confinement. Released, he wrote one more innovative book before dying and becoming a Faust-like figure of legend. The Victorians revived interest in him, but twentieth-century carpers demurred. Clegg's enthralling book launches Roger Bacon's re-revival. Ray Olson
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