Today, Robert Grosseteste, Roger Bacon, and
cyberspace. The University of Houston's College of
Engineering presents this series about the machines
that make our civilization run, and the people
whose ingenuity created them.
Robert Grosseteste was born
in 1168 and educated in the cathedral school at
Oxford, in medieval England. He was as near to
being a scientist as that world had to offer. When
Oxford became a university in 1215, he was its
Grosseteste was an Aristotelian in a Platonist
world. Historian Margaret Wertheim tells us he
lived a very strict monastic life, but he had
Aristotle's talent for scientific observation. He
looked for God's perfection, but he did so in the
For Grosseteste, God was light. Understanding light
meant understanding God. And since light followed
the rules of Euclid, the way to light and to God
was through geometry.
It was Grosseteste who first figured out that a
rainbow wasn't just reflected light, it was
refracted light. Light is bent in the mists that
form rainbows the same way it's bent in a pool of
Roger Bacon was Grosseteste's student. He created
less science than Grosseteste, but he was a
powerful champion of his ideas. After Grosseteste
died, Bacon set out to convince the Papacy that
science and math were a proper arm of theology.
To make his point he described wonders that would,
one day, flow from science -- self-propelled
vehicles, lamps that wouldn't burn out, flying
machines, explosive powders, better medicine,
longer life, high-yield agriculture.
But primarily, Bacon talked about optics. He
predicted telescopes and eyeglasses. Eyeglasses
were first made in Italy a few years before he
died. The rest of his dreams all came to pass much
later on. His life was really about visual realism.
He said God should be shown to the faithful in the
most realistic possible way. Up to then, religious
art was mnemonic. A rough image of a saint or event
simply reminded people to think about Sebastian or
Jonah. Now Bacon called for geometric figuring --
3-D realism that would bring saints to life on
As if on cue, the walls of the new Basilica of St.
Francis, at Assisi, fairly danced with perspective
paintings. It was one of the the most popular
tourist attractions of its age. It'd be 150 years
before the rules of perspective were formalized,
yet the seeds of Renaissance art had been sown.
Wertheim comes to an odd conclusion about Bacon.
His fusion of art and geometry -- his insistence on
compelling realism -- has finally brought us to the
disembodiment of light flowing on the networks.
Bacon's realism helped set in motion a progression
that's led all the way to 21st-century computer
graphics. By a strange trick of illogic, realism
has led all the way to the ultimate inner reality
-- the ultimate unreality -- of cyberspace.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds