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Roger Bacon: The First Scientist – Brian Clegg ***
* UPDATED * for Kindle edition – note original hardback has different cover and was called The First Scientist
Roger Bacon takes us back to thirteenth-century Europe, to the early years of the great universities, where learning was spiced with the danger of mob violence and a terrifyingly repressive religious censorship. Roger Bacon, a humble and devout English friar (not to be confused with the Elizabethan/Jacobean politician and philosopher Francis Bacon), seems an unlikely figure to challenge the orthodoxy of his day – yet this unworldly man risked his life to establish the basis for true scientific knowledge.
Born around 1220, Bacon was passionately interested in the natural world and how things worked. Banned from writing on such dangerous topics by his Order, it was only when a new Pope proved sympathetic that he began compiling his encyclopaedia of knowledge, on everything from optics to alchemy – the synopsis took him a year and ran to 800,000 words, but he was never to complete the work itself. Sadly, the enlightened Pope died before he could read Bacon’s remarkable work, and Bacon was tried as a magician and incarcerated for ten years.
Legend transformed Bacon into a sorcerer, ‘Doctor Mirabilis’, yet he taught that all magic was fraudulent, based on human ability to deceive, and we can recognise today that his books were the first flowering of the scientific knowledge that would transform our world. He advanced the understanding of optics, he demanded a new calendar that prefigured the Gregorian reform, made geographical breakthroughs later used by Columbus, predicted everything from horseless carriages to the telescope, and stressed the importance of mathematics to science, a significance that would not be recognized for 400 years. Yet his biggest contribution was to link science and experiment, to insist that a study of the natural world by observation and exact measurement was the surest foundation for truth.
Up to now all the books about Bacon have been academic texts that were frankly less than exciting and readable. This is much more a work of popular science, though it is almost inevitable that a work on Bacon will have something of an academic feel, hence the low score in stars. Even so it gives a fascinating picture of life in a medieval university, and uncovers a man whose ideas on science have been hidden to most by years of myth and ignorance.
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Review by Jo Reed
Please note, this title is written by the editor of the Popular Science website. Our review is still an honest opinion – and we could hardly omit the book – but do want to make the connection clear.
Wow. I'm not sure I've ever read a book that was quite such an adrenaline rush - certainly it has been a long time since I've read a science fiction title which has kept me wanting to get back to it and read more so fiercely.
In some ways, what we have here is a cyber-SF equivalent of Stephen King's It. A bunch of misfit American high school students face a remarkably powerful evil adversary - though in this case, at the beginning, their foe appears to be able to transform their worlds for the better.
Rather than a supernatural evil, the students take on a rogue AI computer game that thinks it is a god - and has the powers to back its belief. Playing the game is a mix of a virtual reality adventure like Pokemon Go and a real world treasure hunt. Players can get rewards for carrying out tasks - delivering a parcel, for example, which can be used to buy favours, abilities in the game and real objects. But once you are in the game, it doesn't want to let you go and is …
This is intended as a follow-on to Stuart Firestein's two books, the excellent Ignorance and its sequel, Failure, which cut through some of the myths about the nature of science and how it's not so much about facts as about what we don't know and how we search for explanations. The authors of Uncertainty do pretty much what they set out to do in explaining the significance of uncertainty and why it can make it difficult to present scientific findings to the public, who expect black-and-white facts, not grey probabilities, which can seem to some like dithering.
However, I didn't get on awfully well with the book. A minor issue was the size - it was just too physically small to hold comfortably, which was irritating. More significantly, it felt like a magazine article that was inflated to make a book. There really was only one essential point made over and over again, with a handful of repeated examples. I want something more from a book - more context and depth - that …
by Brian Clegg There has never been more emphasis on the importance of public engagement. We need both to encourage a deeper interest in science and to counter anti-scientific views that seem to go hand-in-hand with some types of politics. Getting the public interested in science both helps recruit new scientists of the future and spreads an understanding of why an area of scientific research deserves funding. Yet it is possible that chemistry lags behind the other sciences in outreach. As a science writer, and editor of this website, I believe that chemistry is under-represented in popular science. I'd like to establish if this is the case, if so why it is happening - and what can be done to change things.
An easy straw poll is provided by the topic tags on the site. At the time of writing, there are 22 books under 'chemistry' as opposed to 97 maths, 126 biology and 182 physics. The distribution is inevitably influenced by editorial bias - but as the editor, I can confirm …