Today, science tries to find its way. 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.
Francis Bacon is one of those
famous names of science that we may have trouble
connecting with anything in particular. He was born
in England three years before Shakespeare. He was
educated at Cambridge. At twenty-three he became a
member of parliament under Queen Elizabeth. When
James took the throne in 1603, he recognized Bacon's
huge talents and gave him a series of top government
posts. But what sustains Bacon's name is his theory
of science. He codified our modern scientific method
when he joined a conflict that'd been growing since
Leonardo. By Bacon's time, a great gulf separated the
old alchemists from the new observational scientists.
dissections of nature had pointed the way to modern
anatomy, biology, mapmaking and ethnography. Now we
had Galileo. But the old
alchemical theorists kept on trying to understand the
nature of things through pure reason.
In 1620 Bacon declared war on alchemy in his
Novum Organum. In three volumes of that
book, he used 192 aphorisms to explain how science
should work. They vary from single sentences to
short articles. I'll read the first one.
Man, the servant and interpreter of Nature,
only does and understands so much as he shall
have observed, in fact or in thought, of the
course of Nature; more than this he neither knows
nor can do.
In other words, Bacon would no longer put up with
alchemical deductions. Knowledge not only was to
begin with observation; it should also avoid going
beyond observation. And he didn't stop there. He
went on to say that the evils of current science
were the result of too much admiration for the
powers of the mind.
After Bacon we amassed a body of facts the
alchemists never could have amassed, while
theoretical science went fallow. Only an occasional
Newton or Leibnitz went where Bacon's methods could
not go. Newton was an
alchemist who kept quiet about alchemy. But he
used his deductive talent to go far beyond mere
Thinkers began deconstructing Bacon in the early
19th century -- after Romantic
poets had insisted that we create nature by
dreaming nature. We finally saw that
full descriptions of nature had to rest on
mental constructions as well as on keen
observation. Only then could 19th-century science
start moving again.
The problem lay more with Bacon's followers than
with Bacon himself. George Bernard Shaw once
grumbled that he had nothing against Christianity;
it was Christians he couldn't abide. Bacon's
followers likewise lost sight of the deeper intent
of his ideas.
Most important, it was Bacon who insisted that true
science has to be falsifiable. When we stop looking
for ways to prove our science wrong, we cease to be
scientists. That was Bacon's objection to the
alchemists. They reasoned as a debate team might
reason; they reasoned to win rather than to
inquire. What Bacon insisted on (and what any real
scientist must do) is to go where nature directs. A
science that begins with its own conclusions is no
science at all.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds