While Galileo was in trouble with the religious courts in Rome, the same English lawyer who published New Atlantis in 1624, Francis Bacon, was working out how to practice what he preached. It was time for him to perform the first experiment, to test some idea about nature. For as well as being remembered for pioneering rules about how science might be done, no particular branch of it, but the value of testing the early hunch of a new idea, he is also remembered for actually performing the first experiment. In New Atlantis he argued that as much background influence as possible should be put to one side so that the experiment concentrated on one single thing at a time. And this is what he did: when the chance came, he took it.
Bacon had been brought up to believe that faith and reason were part of day-to-day religious doctrine and gladly accepted that any new understanding was considered by the Church to be part of its work. To move knowledge forward he was trying to devise a system of finding out new explanations, a method that others would follow and find useful to work with. If everyone could explore the issues in a compatible way, learn to speak the same methodological language, then problems about nature might be solved more accurately and quickly. The answers might then start to fit together and present a more meaningful picture. He was thinking about a process by which ideas could be discovered, rather than about a particular discovery, a scientific method that could be accepted as an authentic way of finding some truth about the nature of life.
He believed that this was more important than the religious way of life but he received a major set-back in putting these views forward to the public. In 1621 he was charged with corruption and imprisoned in the Tower of London to await King James’ pleasure. His wrong-doings were not for any errors in his scientific work but for the bribes he had accepted as Lord Chancellor, and he chose the easiest way out by pleading guilty before Parliament: “My Lords, it is my act, my hand and my heart. I beseech your lordships to be merciful to a broken reed.” The quieter way of life that followed gave Bacon time to think through and develop his emerging ideas of how to do science, how to get to know the mysteries and questions of the natural world and how they might be understood.
The story goes that one winter morning in 1626, Bacon and his friend the King’s doctor set off together on a mission that was going to change the course of human history. Their horse-drawn carriage went up past The Angel out of London into the countryside, along the Great North Road to Highgate. The coach stopped outside a crumbling old cottage and the two men climbed down onto the frozen mud. They went into the building where an old woman was trying to warm herself by the fire. It was close to the spot where Dick Whittington looked out over London, and at around the same time.
Like her visitors, the old woman was shivering with the cold, but pleased to sell two of her fowls. The two customers made the woman exenterate the birds and the experiment began. Bacon took one of the birds outside, picked up several handfuls of snow and stuffed the frozen water into the carcass for it to be left out in the cold. The other was left in the cottage by the warm fire, where it soon became a festering mass of putrefying flesh and bugs. From the simple comparison of the different conditions for the same object the experiment tested Bacon’s theory of how meat decays and how it can be preserved.
His idea, or theory, was that meat decays by reacting with some internal organic substances. The experiment controlled the temperature, making it too cold for organic reactions. The meat was preserved.
By creating a theory, comparing options, eliminating other explanations, he found a solution to the problem or at least another way of understanding it. A week later Bacon reported that “as for the experiment itself, it succeeded excellently well, but in the journey from London to Highgate I was taken with such a fit of casting as I know not whether it was the Stone, or some surfeit or cold, or indeed a touch of them all three.” The chill had quickly turned into pneumonia and Bacon died the following week. His private secretary, Thomas Meautys, saw to it that Bacon’s Natural History, Sylva Sylvarum and his New Atlantis, were both published before the end of the year.
This way of investigating nature lived on and talk of Bacon’s work stimulated a small group of men from humble families in eastern counties, and as we shall see, they were all studying at Cambridge during the early 1660s. There was no doubt that their work with science was beginning to challenge the authorized explanations of how to account for living things. Their experimental results were being published as new facts and this tempted the dons to debate how to bring up the questions about the origin and diversity of life in nature: where biodiversity came from. But being ordained as priests they had to decide whether or not to stick to their guns and defend their beliefs against such doubts. Even after thinking, arguing and teaching about new topics such as planets in motion around the sun and the time needed for other changes that had happened in the world, it was important that Bacon’s example of reason by experiment was understood and followed.
More optimistic changes at the start of the eighteenth century began to take over and drive society more quickly, enabling politicians to achieve their new social ambitions. Not only were the scientific developments sensible and more popular than the older life styles but they also seemed to work. Science began to take on a more important role as it established new practices in different fields but it continued to be no threat for the established role of the church as it was still being done within the style of God’s design and the way people understood the nature of life itself.