July 9, 2020

Bacon, Sir Francis, Not Fried.

By Glenn

Francis Bacon is in many ways the father of the Modern World.  In 1620 he explained why astronomers were making revolutionary breakthroughs studying the planets.  He called his work Novum Organum, or New Methodology.  The world knows his contribution as the Scientific Method.

The journey to Bacon took nearly eighty years.  The century before Nicolaus Copernicus imagined a solar system.  All of the Greek philosophers and Christian theologians before him insisted that the earth was the center of the “wanderers,” or “planets.”   Humans and saw seven lights move across the “heavens”. 

Over the next 80 years astronomers looked for evidence to support Copernicus and refute authority.  In one generation Tycho Brahe carefully plotted the position of the wanders.  In the next, Johann Kepler applied a new mathematical model to the heavens, an ellipse. 

As evidence mounted, both secular and religious experts resisted.  How could the sun be the center of all things visible?  Galileo Galilei, however, broke the dam.  With new technology, a telescope, Galileo made it possible for any school child to challenge ancient experts. 

Galileo pointed his telescope at the “wanders” and proved they were not heavenly lights at all.  They were physical bodies reflecting the light of the sun.  Each planet went through phases like the moon and the phases only match if the sun, not the earth, were at the center.

Bacon knew this history and explained why these great minds broke down centuries of accepted wisdom and common sense.  Astronomers knew that planets did not behave as established models predicted.  Instead of dismissing the data, they revised their model.  This change was a key to new discoveries, simply admitting the old way of thinking might be wrong.

The astronomers then painstakingly made precise, minute observations.  They measured each observable change and recorded the data.  Each data point was meaningless, however, in isolation.  True meaning came from the relationships among the data points.

Mathematics was essential to the rethinking of the cosmos. These men were educated in the fields of geometry and algebra. Their education allowed them to see pattern that common sense missed.   Bacon studied their method and simplified it: hypothesis, observe, record, conclude and retest the hypothesis. 

Bacon saw the utility of this method beyond astronomy.  In an unpublished essay, New Atlantis, he imagined a society that applied science to all human problems.  Instead of sending explorers out in search of gold and slaves, what if society funded explorers to seek out safer transportation technology or cures for diseases? 

Bacon’s predicted answer came true.  Modern societies followed Bacon’s advice and used the scientific method.  These societies lived longer.  They had greater freedom.   They were more prosperous.    It is not time to turn back now.  Millions of lives are at stake.  Scientists, not politicians nor preachers, will solve our Covid 19 problem.

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