Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 1153:
GROSSETESTE AND BACON

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 1153.

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 first chancellor.

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 physical world.

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 water.

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 church walls.

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 work.

(Theme music)


Wertheim, M., Pythagoras' Trousers. New York: Random House, Inc., 1995, Chapter 2, God as Mathematician. (See also Episode 1124.)

Wertheim, M., The Medieval Consolations of Cyberspace. The Sciences, November/December, 1995, pp. 24-25.

Maloney, S.S., The Extreme Realism of Roger Bacon. The Review of Metaphysics, Vol. 38, June 1985, pp. 807-837.


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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