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Roger Bacon

Roger Bacon was an English scholastic philosopher who was also considered a scientist because he insisted on observing things for himself instead of relying on what other people had written. Bacon was born into a wealthy family in 1214 and died in 1294. He was trained in the classics, geometry, arithmetic, music and astronomy and was a student at the University of Paris as a young man where he received the degree of Doctor of Theology. Bacon spent forty years studying and lecturing on the natural sciences at Oxford University in England. For these efforts, he is considered to be the most important cultivator of the natural sciences during the Middle Ages.

Bacon's writings included treatises on optics (then called perspective), mathematics, chemistry, arithmetic, astronomy, the tides, and the reformation of the calendar. His skill in the use of optical and mechanical instruments caused him to be regarded by many as a sorcerer. Bacon was acquainted with the properties of mirrors, knew the powers of steam and gunpowder, had a working knowledge in microscopy, and possessed an instrument very much like a modern telescope. He claimed that his telescope could make the most distant object appear near, that it could make stars appear at will, and even further, that it had the power of visualizing future events.

Bacon once frightened his students by creating a rainbow by passing light through some glass beads. This demonstration marked one of the earliest attempts to duplicate a natural phenomenon in the laboratory. Bacon believed that the Earth was spherical and that one could sail around it. He estimated the distance to the stars at 130 million miles, and he used a camera that projected an image through a pinhole to observe solar eclipses. His work was so popular that it encouraged others to experiment on their own, and by so doing helped bring about the Renaissance.

In 1266, Bacon sent a letter to Pope Clement IV suggesting improvements in the scientific curricula and installing laboratory experimentation in the educational system. He made the bold claim that the entire educational system needed to be rebuilt, and that the foundations for this revitalization could be found in his work. Bacon gave to the pope a proposal for a universal encyclopedia of knowledge and asked for a team of collaborators to be coordinated by a body in the Church to build the encyclopedia. Unfortunately, Pope Clement was unaccustomed to receiving proposals such as Bacon's and misunderstood his request. Thinking that Bacon's encyclopedia of science already existed, the Pope demanded to see the documents. In the confusion, Pope Clement bound Bacon by a papal oath of secrecy to reveal all of his beliefs and philosophies. Because Bacon revered the pope and could not disobey, he quickly composed a three-volume encyclopedia on the sciences. These works consisted of the Opus Majus (Great Work), the Opus Minus (Lesser Work) and the Opus Tertium (Third Work), explaining to the pope the rightful role of the sciences in the university curriculum and the interdependence of all disciplines.

Unfortunately, in 1268 Pope Clement IV died. With the Pope's death, Bacon's chances of seeing the encyclopedia project through to completion vanished and even worse, a defeat for the prospect of revamping the university curriculum. Undaunted, Bacon embarked on another great project and started to write the Communia naturalium (General Principles of Natural Philosophy) and the Communia mathematica (General Principles of Mathematical Science). He never finished this work and only part of it was published.

In 1277, The Minister General of the Franciscans condemned Bacon's work because of the "suspect novelties" it contained. In response, the loyal Brothers of the Order had him imprisoned. Bacon had always submitted his writings to the judgment of the Church, and now appealed to the new Pope. The appeal was lost and Bacon was imprisoned, but the exact amount of time he served is unknown. Some sources say two years, others much longer. His last work, published the year of his death, was a stinging reproach of a corrupted Church. Although largely incomplete, Bacon's last contribution found him just as determined as any time in his life to expose ignorance.


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