I have lived more than half of my life in Germany but one way that I maintain contact with my British roots is that I listen to two and a half hours of BBC Radio 4 on Sunday mornings. This consists mainly of the wonderful Broadcasting House followed by the Archers (no rude comments please, I grew up with the Archers). This is however preceded by one of those programmes, which are uniquely Radio 4, “A Point of View”. This is a ten-minute slot in which well-educated and erudite experienced broadcasters reflect upon a topic of their own choice. One of these is the Renaissance historian, writer and broadcaster Lisa Jardine.
Sunday past Ms Jardine chose to muse for her ten minutes on the subject of gardening and politics and started of with the phrase, “Francis Bacon Lord Chancellor to James I and the father of modern science…” thereby, in my opinion committing a serious historical sin as well as perpetuating a seriously misleading historical myth.
I think the phrase ‘father of’ should be permanently banned from the vocabulary of all historians of science and technology. In fact I think that writers on the history of science and technology should have a special programme installed in their computers that as soon as they type the phrase ‘father of’ slowly and irrevocably dissolves their hard disk whilst uttering ear splitting screams of despair interspersed with gales of fiendish laughter. You might well ask why I cultivate such a negative attitude to what seems like a relatively harmless expression? The answer is quite simple, there is no such person as a father of any discipline or sub-discipline they do not exist and to claim that they do is a serious perversion of the history of science and technology.
There are at least five scholars to whom the phrase father of modern science has been and still is regularly applied and I could add at least three or four more who are equally deserving. For those who might be led to thinking that the problem is confined to the origins of modern science, it is not. I could name at least seven fathers of physical optic and five of modern physical optics, five fathers of physics, five of chemistry, four or five of geology and eleven of the computer. Even if one were to concede that a discipline does not possess one single father but is rather the prodigy of a collective of fathers one would be ignoring the fact that each of them is very much dependent on a whole group of not so significant figures who supplied the building blocks out of which he created his ideas. Science is a collective co-operative enterprise that progresses gradually through the contributions of whole legions of workers some more significant than others but none standing alone as ‘the father’. Let us never again have to read this ridiculous epithet.
Having dealt with Lisa’s sin what is the myth she was guilty of perpetuating? Even if the phrase father of modern science were valid, and I repeat it is not, then it is not applicable to and should not be applied to Francis Bacon. I know that it is very common usage to describe Francis Bacon as the father, founder, originator etc., etc. of modern science but this attribution is simply false. In his philosophical work bacon developed and described a methodology for the investigation of the natural world but his methodology actually contradicts the methodology developed and practiced by people such as Galileo, Huygens and Newton who are usually credited with being the founders or progenitors of modern science. This is exactly the conflict on which I have written more than once between, as Rutherford put it so pithily, the scientists and the stamp collectors. Bacon is the original stamp collector and although his methodology has a great deal of validity in astronomy, the earth sciences and the various braches of natural history it is not the methodology, which people (falsely, there’s more than one) think of as the methodology of modern science, which is a variant of that outlined by Newton in the footnotes and appendices of his great works.