Science Reads: ‘Knowledge is Power: How Magic, the Government and an Apocalyptic Vision inspired Francis Bacon to create Modern Science’ by John Henry

Today’s Science Read is an odd but fascinating book about Francis Bacon, who is often credited with being the founder of ‘Modern Science’, although the truth is far more complex. Now, I have to admit that my knowledge of Francis Bacon was fairly patchy before I picked up this book. My mental card file on him looked something like this:

– Lived in 1500s? 1600s?
– Wrote some books about philosophy
– Jumped out of his carriage to grab a chicken, kill it and stuff it with snow, in order to see if ice could preserve flesh; consequently died of pneumonia due to exposure
– Not to be confused with the Francis Bacon who painted all those grotesque portraits

In other words, I knew almost nothing about him. However, I can now reliably inform you that Francis Bacon (no relation to the artist) was born in 1561; became Lord Chancellor to King James I; wrote a LOT of books, including one of the first Utopian novels; influenced a range of scientists, from Newton to Darwin, and inspired the establishment of the Royal Society, the oldest and most prestigious scientific institution in Britain; and died in 1626, although his death probably had nothing to do with iced-chicken experiments.

'Knowledge is Power' by John HenryJohn Henry gives a clear description of Bacon’s main themes, which were that society was on the verge of a flowering of knowledge about how the universe worked; that this knowledge should be used for the benefit of humankind; and that science would be best developed within a bureaucratic structure funded by the government but free of political and religious bias, and staffed by a huge army of workers gathering, tabulating and interpreting information. Even Henry acknowledges that important scientific advances have never happened within this type of bureaucratic structure, but he argues convincingly that Bacon’s ideas were very influential, if sometimes misinterpreted, by philosophers and scientists during the Enlightenment and afterwards.

Henry also does an excellent job of describing Bacon’s world, one quite alien to those of us living in twenty-first century secular democracies. For example, in Bacon’s time, it was completely rational to believe in God and whatever the Church currently decreed was a ‘fact’ (regardless of whether it really was true), because otherwise, you’d find yourself convicted of heresy and burnt at the stake. Words such as ‘magic’, ‘science’ and ‘atheist’ had completely different meanings then. ‘Magic’, for example, was not about supernatural powers, but about discovering the ‘correspondences’ between natural substances (for example, between magnets and iron) and ‘natural magic’ was what we might think of as primitive science. While a magician might (unwisely) choose to summon a demon, this would only be to help the magician learn about these natural correspondences more quickly. A demon had knowledge but no supernatural powers and could not do anything miraculous, and the Church frowned upon demonology only because demons were known to exploit humans and could endanger a magician’s immortal soul. Henry also explains how Bacon’s devout Calvinist upbringing and conviction that the End of Days was nigh1 had a significant influence upon his philosophy.

The design of this book was a bit odd, and at first I wondered if it was self-published, but no, it seems it’s part of a series of science-themed books published by Icon Books in the UK and Totem Books in the US. There was a glossary, but no index; there were a few footnotes, but they referred to only four texts; there was some very dense and academic information, but it was presented in a conversational style with lots of droll asides from the author. It’s as though the publishers weren’t exactly sure who the audience for this book would be, but I found it very interesting and readable. Those who know a lot about Francis Bacon probably won’t find much new in this book, but I’d recommend this for those who don’t know much about him but are interested in the history of science.

Tomorrow in Science Reads: Chocolate Consumption, Cognitive Function, and Nobel Laureates by Franz H. Messerli


  1. While ‘apocalypse’ implies destruction and chaos to us, to Bacon it meant a time when the old, flawed world would be replaced with a glorious new world, full of knowledge and contentment. While it was true that this would mean the destruction of unworthy humans (Catholics, Jews, Muslims, heathens, etc), Bacon knew that he, as an Englishman and the ‘right’ sort of Protestant Christian, would be one of the saved, so he eagerly awaited Judgement Day.

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