Monday 11 February 2013

Extraordinary Lives - Sir Francis Bacon

The person who can be said to be the first modern scientist was Sir Frances Bacon, 1st Viscount St Albans (left). Even though his research methods were considered eccentric in his time they led the way in observation and experimentation in research.

For several centuries Bacon’s sexuality was either ignored or misinterpreted. Rictor Norton, one of the world’s current leading lgbt historians, has written: “Historians regularly hide what they cannot deny, and suppress evidence of the homosexuality of historical figures”. The evidence in Francis Bacon’s case is everywhere. During his lifetime he was known to show a particularly close interest in a string of young Welsh servants and attendants he employed. One of his contemporaries wrote an autobiography in which he goes into some detail about a certain “bedfellow” of Bacon’s by the name of Godrick. Even Bacon’s own mother complained about him allowing his servants to sleep (and more) with him in his own bed. It wasn’t the sex that offended her so much as the fact that the servants were allowed to enter the master’s bedroom!

The bulk of Bacon’s career was taken up with the law. He joined the Inns of Court in London in 1575. He was elected MP of several successive constituencies right up to 1614. By this time Bacon was also one of the most influential figures at the court of King James I. This started through his friendship with the Earl of Essex who tried to have Bacon appointed by Queen Elizabeth I to several key positions. When Essex fell out of favour and executed Bacon helped to prosecute him.

When James I succeeded to the throne of England Bacon tried to improve his standing further. Perhaps James recognised a kindred spirit in Bacon. The king had several toy-boys whom he advanced at court. The most important of these was George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham. Bacon’s letters show he obviously fancied Buckingham as much as the king did, but wisely kept his distance. It wasn’t long before Bacon was knighted and climbed the legal ladder from King’s Counsel to Solicitor General to Attorney General to Lord Keeper of the Great Seal and finally, in 1618, Lord Chancellor, the highest position in the country after the king himself.

One of the first responsibilities Bacon was charged with when James succeeded was as a member of the commission to unite the Crowns of Scotland and England politically into Great Britain. In the present day there’s a lot of talk about Scotland leaving the United Kingdom (leaving Great Britain, actually, as it would still leave England and Northern Ireland and the united kingdoms).

By 1621 Bacon had been given a peerage and was Viscount St Albans. But his influence at court was soon cut short. Through the machinations of his political rivals he was convicted to accepting bribes as a judge and briefly locked up in the Tower of London. On his release he had the chance to spend more time on his final career choice – that of scientific researcher and a writer.

Bacon had dabbled in science before his conviction. At university as a teenager he had no interest in the views of Aristotle which dominated scientific thought at the time and wanted to pursue his own experimental techniques.

In 1592 he said that all knowledge was his province, and over the next few years he gradually developed his theories of learning, so that by 1621 he was more than ready to pursue his dream of full-time research. The scope of Bacon’s research and thinking covers many subjects. From the origin of ancient myths to the nature of learning, from the causes of hiccups to the shortage of rain in Egypt, Bacon had a theory.

What amazes me about Bacon’s observations is that sometimes he noticed things that are not explained until 300 years later. Bacon had looked at maps of the coastlines of Africa and newly explored South America and noticed that they almost fitted together. Today we know why – because they DID fit together, many millions of years ago. Bacon didn’t try to explain continental drift, he didn’t think anything of it, he was just making an observation.

What Bacon espoused more than anything else is his scientific writing was that only proper experimentation led to the truth. This is best explained in his novel “New Atlantis”. It describes the fictional island of Bensalem and it’s scientific institute full of eager researchers into all things. From this fictional institute grew an idea among scientists to create something similar in reality, and in 1660 the Royal Society was founded in London. It was partly inspired by Bacon.

As a piece of fiction “New Atlantis” also influenced, and was satirised by, Jonathan Swift in “Gulliver’s Travels” (having read both in the past I recommend those who haven’t read either to read “Gulliver’s Travels” first – chapters 2 to 6 of Book 3; a parody often makes the original easier to read).

Perhaps the utopian island created by Bacon reflected his own belief in the creation of an ideal new state in the New World. The American colonies were just being established and Bacon had a leading role in the creation of Virginia.

How do you sum up the life of a man like Sir Francis Bacon? I can think of no better way than to recount the manner of his death. It illustrates his enquiring mind, his eagerness to learn, and his approach to experimentation that is the basis of all science today.

One snowy day in March 1626 Bacon was travelling through the countryside. Looking at the snow through his carriage window he wondered if it would preserve food with its coldness. He asked his coachman to stop and buy a chicken from a nearby house (every country house kept chickens at this time). Bacon left the relative comfort of his carriage and began to stuff the dead chicken with snow. I know that Spring air can be a bit nippy at times, but March 1626 must have been particularly cold. Bacon caught a chill and it soon developed into bronchitis. Several days later, on Easter Day, 19th April 1626. Sir Francis Bacon breathed his last.

An extraordinary end to an extraordinarily progressive mind.

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