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Roger Bacon (c.1214 - c.1292)
by Terence Green
In the dim distance
Objects appear to mine eye:
Gathering the light.
Roger Bacon was one of the foremost English philosophers of the Middle Ages, and was known posthumously as Doctor Mirabilis – ‘Dr Miraculous’. From the nineteenth century onwards he has been credited as one of the earliest exponents of the modern scientific method, on the basis that he believed that nature should be studied through careful observation. Bacon’s particular interest in alchemy – whose core pursuits were trying to turn base metals into gold, and the elixir that would confer youth and long-life – is harder to square with modern science, but lots of people were into it at the time (and Sir Isaac Newton was still hard at it over four hundred years later), and alchemy did soon mutate into what we call chemistry.
Besides trying to get rich quick by making gold out of lead, Bacon was also interested in questions concerning optics and how we see things. How is it, Roger asked, that we can see things that are far away from us? How does the image get to us? The answer, he said, is that copies of the image mysteriously emanate from the original and travel through space until they strike the eye, and hey presto, that’s how we see distant objects. Whatever sense this makes to you, Roger’s interest in optics did lead to his inventing spectacles. This was indeed a visionary moment, changing the way many of us see the world.
On the subject of the Julian calendar, then still in use, Roger didn’t mince his words: the calendar was intolerabilis, horribilis, and derisibilis, which is to say, intolerable, horrible, and laughable. Despite Roger’s campaign for calendar reform, the hopelessly flawed Julian calendar remained in use until 1582. Derisibilis!
© Terence Green 2019
Terence is a writer, historian, and lecturer, and lives with his wife and their dog in Paekakariki, NZ. hardlysurprised.blogspot.co.nz