Francis Bacon and Galileo Galilei: Two Approaches to Progress in Science

by Jacob T. Schwartz
December 7, 1987

Galileo Galilei, Professor of Mathematics at Pisa, Padua, and Florence; and Francis Bacon, Lord Verulum, Viscount Saint Albans, Attorney General, Lord Chancellor of England, were near contemporaries: Galileo 1564 - 1642, Bacon 1561 - 1626. They corresponded, at least through intermediaries: e.g., in 1619 concerning tides. Both are the authors of extensive scientific works: the Sidereal Messenger, Dialog on the Two Great World Systems, On Motion, On Mechanics, Bodies in Water, Discourse on Comets in the case of Galileo; the New Organon, Great Instauration, Forest of Forests, Advancement of Learning in the case of Bacon. In their day both were seen as scientists of the greatest eminence. But subsequent history has treated their reputations very differently. I think a lesson can be drawn from this fact.

Few will deny that Galileo is still seen as a principal founder and father of modern science. Bacon on the other hand is commonly seen as an influential footnote in scientific history, whose main lines run from Galileo through Kepler to Newton. Yet during his life, and with growing resonance in the decades following his death, Bacon's influence on the proto-scientific community of England and Europe was enormous, and admiration for his work was widespread and profound. Nevertheless, in a manner at least partially contrary to Bacon's probable hope, this influence worked itself out along institutional and sociological, rather than technical and specific, lines. The culminating event directly traceable to specifically Baconian influence was the founding of the Royal Society in 1661. This extremely important predecessor of our own National Academy of Sciences traces directly back to Bacon's vision, in his New Atlantis, of a "Solomon's House", in modern terms an "Institute for Experimental and Theoretical Research." Clear intermediate links from this to the eventual creation of the Royal Society lie in the turbulent Cromwellian period of British history, heady with schemes of social and educational reform, including proposals for new institutions emphasizing Baconian experimentation. Submitted for funding over more than a decade to a consistently recalcitrant Parliament by admirers and disciples of Bacon as a series of projects variously called "Office of Address", "Philosophical College", "Atlantis College", "Macaria Project", "Antilia Project" and so forth, this proposal finally attained official sanction (as the Royal Society) after the Stuart restoration of 1660. Nevertheless, though all this surely makes Bacon a great inspirer and organizer of science, it does not rank him as a scientist in the direct sense that this term attaches to Galileo.

It is not hard to understand the shortcomings which deny Bacon the place within science proper to which he must have aspired. If, using the three and a half centuries of hindsight now available to us, we examine almost any of his major scientifically oriented works, we see an approach that, for all its evident and vast ambition, is curiously and primitively taxonomic and eclectic, and that fatally lacks the technical distinctions which the subsequent development of science has led us to see as essential. Look, for example, into his "New Organon, whether at one of the hierarchically organized taxonomic tables which Bacon uses to give overall organization to the material he presents, or more specifically into any typical section, e.g., at the second main section in his Second Book of Aphorisms, where one finds Bacon's famous discussion of "Heat". One finds there a compendium of topics and observations, curious, even bewildering in modern terms, but entirely typical of Bacon's approach, all relating to the theme of "Heat" as Bacon saw it. This list speaks for itself, and I repeat it (with some minor abbreviations and omissions):

  1. The rays of the sun
  1. Meteors
  2. Lightning
  3. Eruption of flames from the cavities of mountains
  4. Flames of every kind
  5. Ignited solids
  6. Natural warm baths
  7. Warm or heated liquids
  8. Warm vapors and smoke
  9. Damp hot air
  1. All shaggy substances, as wool, the skins of animals, and the plumage of birds, contain some heat
  1. Sparks arising from the violent percussion of flint and steel
  1. Green and moist vegetable matter confine and rubbed together, as roses, peas in baskets; hay, if it be damp when stacked, often catches fire.
  2. Quicklime sprinkled with water
  3. Iron, when first dissolved by acids in a glass
  4. Animals, particularly internally
  1. Strong and well-rectified spirits of wine, . . . [since]. . white of eggs when thrown into it grows hard and white, almost in the same manner as when boiled;
  1. Strong vinegar and all acids, on any part of the body . . . where the skin is removed excite a pain differing little from that produced by heat.

Looking at this list through eyes wiser by 350 years, it is easy to see that the list indiscriminately mixes topics out of which major, now distinct, branches of science have grown: Physics, Chemistry, Biochemistry; that it lists phenomena, e.g., warming by the sun's rays, whose full explanation could only be attained, three centuries after Bacon, through the rise of quantum mechanics; and that it ignores distinctions that we have come to regard as fundamental, as between energy and insulation, between friction and oxidation, between chemical and thermal denaturing of egg-white; even between the subjective sensation of heat and objectively elevated temperature.

Bacon's abbreviated attempts, later in the same work, to assemble the fragmentary observations summarized in his list into some coherent theoretical synthesis are drawn into hopeless confusion by the very breadth of phenomena which he tried to discuss, as in "There are many effects common to cold and heat, however different in their process. For, snow balls appear to burn boy's hands after a little time, and cold no less than fire preserves bodies from putrefaction, besides, both heat and cold contract bodies." Even his confused anticipations of ideas which subsequently attained great, even central, importance in science, fail because of this lack of precision to be of any use, as in "...heat is not uniform expansive motion of the whole, but of the small particles of the body; and this motion being at all times restrained, repulsed, and reflected, becomes alternating, perpetually hurrying, striving, and irritated by the repercussion; which is the source of the violence of flame and heat." Here signal is hopelessly compromised by noise. To progress, science required above all a much clearer focus. To attain this focus, drastic initial narrowing of its field of view was required.

This narrowing is plain in Galileo, in whose work, for all its occasional archaism and ongoing debate with Aristotle, the true spirit and substance of modern science is fully apparent. Even where matters of the broadest consequence come under discussion, as in his Dialog on the Two Great World Systems, discussion always focuses on salient but narrow details, within reach of the science of his day. Cannon balls falling or rolling down a plank or from a ship's mast, pendula, hydrostatics, the telescope and microscope, sunspots, the moons of Jupiter, the geography of the lunar surface, eclipses, relative and absolute motion of objects, the annual motion of the earth and its relation to the seasons, the strength of materials and bending of beams, reflection of light from smooth and rough surfaces: these constitute Galileo's impressive legacy, left to us in much the same form in which they are encountered today in freshman sciences courses, at least courses which begin by avoiding the calculus. Profoundly impressive: but I stress that this list of topics, hardly constituting the third or half of one of Bacon's discursive enumerations, fills out the whole of Galileo's life's work. What Galileo attains thereby is a discussion which is extended and penetrating where Bacon's is fatally hurried and superficial; which teases out distinctions that Bacon confounds; and that is quantitative and appropriately mathematical in a way which builds toward the characteristic mathematical techniques of modern science, while Bacon's broader plan loses its footing, remaining purely qualitative and entirely primitive. I submit therefore that a profound part of Galileo's genius lay in his deliberate narrowing of the list of topics which he was willing to discuss: a narrowing by means of which he was able to attain that depth needed for the birth of true science.

Before moving on from consideration of this heroic figure I should like to note that, in addition to his scientific attainments, Galileo seems to have been the inventor of the modern grant proposal. Writing in 1610 to Duke Cosimo de Medici, to apply for the job of Chief Mathematician at the University of Pisa, Galileo not only lists his publications and recites his inventions, but complains of the inordinate teaching load which prevents him from pursuing his research, describes his out-year research plan (e.g., more work on practical applications of the newly discovered moons of Jupiter), and stresses the potential military applications of his work, including a specialized mechanical calculator useful for aiming artillery.

I draw on stage a final actor from a very different field to emphasize one last point, which is easily lost sight of even though both Galileo and Bacon viewed it as fundamental. Only in the presence of clear, objective, preferably quantitative criteria of truth and progress can science expect to advance steadily and assuredly. Whenever the task of erecting such a standard for an area of science goes too long unfulfilled, a vital intellectual thread is lost, and social mechanisms come to replace the healthier neutral mechanisms of objective science. Given objective criteria of progress, science can advance by overcoming its errors. In the absence of such criteria this mechanism faits, with the result that once proposed, theories persist indefinitely, undergoing endless minor changes but never meeting decisive refutation. Contending schools, unable to resolve their differences, entrench themselves, and orthodoxy/heterodoxy becomes a vexations issue. It is in token of these dangers that I note Dr. Karen Horney's demotion, April 1941, from her appointment as "Instructor" at the New York Psychoanalytic Society to the lesser post of "Lecturer", amidst charges, on the one hand of intellectual censorship, on the other the divisive and intolerable organized sectarianism.

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© 1987-2009 Jacob T. Schwartz