I thought I’d take a scenic diversion from more modern science fiction, and touch upon some far older predictions of future science: those found in the works of the early 17th century statesman Francis Bacon, justly famous for his works on improving human knowledge, and considered an early “modern” scientist. I’m focusing on his 1626 Utopian fable, New Atlantis (which may be downloaded for free from Project Gutenberg here). This uncompleted piece, in which he outlines the plans for a scientific research institute (“Salomon’s house”), is interesting enough just for that, but there are some prescient and occasionally astonishing predictions for future science in there as well, both as descriptions of what the inhabitants of his imaginary island are engaged in researching, and as possible future projects, which is what I’ll be looking at.

I’m not the first to be intrigued by New Atlantis: much of its fascination for more modern readers has been its prediction of a wide variety of future inventions, much like science fiction. Bacon’s ideas include (in some cases, admittedly, with more imagination than others) even relatively recent developments: microscopes, amplifiers, submarines and telecommunications:

We have also glasses and means to see small and minute bodies perfectly and distinctly….We have also divers and strange artificial echoes, reflecting the voice many times, and as it were tossing it: and some that give the voice back louder than it came…We have also means to convey sounds in trunks and pipes, in strange lines and distances….we have some degrees of flying in the air; we have ships and boats for going under water…

It’s important to note though that in many cases Bacon wasn’t dreaming these ideas up out of thin air, but basing them upon the most modern science and technology at the time.: telescopes, refrigeration, hydraulics and even primitive steam engines had all been demonstrated at the court of James I, of England, in whose circle Bacon, Lord Verulam, moved. As for microscopes, magnifying glasses had been used for centuries, but combining lenses to achieve greater magnification was an idea beginning to circulate in the 17th century, and a likely inventor of the compound microscope was Cornelis Drebbel, who performed many feats of science and technology for James I, including a submarine in 1620, which managed to remain underwater for three hours.

Drebbel submarine

What I actually found most intriguing was the simple list of potential research topics at the end of the piece, offering a tantalising glimpse of Bacon’s ideas, and leaving the reader wondering where he might have taken them. These include many things that anyone would think to put on their list of desirable ends:

The curing of diseases counted incurable …The prolongation of life…Greater pleasures of the senses

in addition to more earthly and practical:

Making rich composts for the earth.

There are also some other intriguing ideas though:

Artificial minerals and cements…Making new threads for apparel [i.e. synthetic fibres]

I know, it doesn’t sound as thrilling as spaceships, or cloning, but consider how much of our modern life is dependent upon synthetic chemistry. Moreover, it took extensive scientific work to get those new threads. Joseph Swan invented the first synthetic fiber in the early 1880s, but this was from cellulose derived from tree bark. Similarly rayon, in 1924, was derived from wood. Nylon, still familiar to us all as the first completely synthetic fibre (actually referring to a group of synthetic polymers) wasn’t developed until the 1930s – that’s three hundred years after Bacon wrote this, at a time when chemistry as a science was just a glint in the eye of alchemy.

There are two things on that list that really excited me when I first read it:

Making of new species…Transplanting of one species into another.

That’s right, he’s talking about changing one species into another. Just consider, for a moment, of the radical shift in thinking from centuries of accepted “fact” that regarded species as immutable and having been set there on the appropriate day of Creation by the Christian God (from Bacon’s perspective – and that of his society). He elaborates upon this a little in the Sylva Sylvarum:

This work of the transmutation of plants into one another, is inter magnalia naturae: for the transmutation of species is, in the vulgar philosophy, pronounced impossible; and certainly it is a thing of great difficulty, and requireth deep search into nature.

I must confess when I read that little bit out transplanting of species I yelled out loud: “So close! If only you’d run with it!” Of course, he couldn’t have run very far, with the current state of knowledge as it was then. Evolution, like all big theories, couldn’t come out of nowhere: it did indeed require a deep search into nature. It’s a glimpse of a thought of what would become the Theory of Evolution, and, indeed, the possibility of not just natural but artificial selection or selective breeding (which is really what Bacon is referring to): deliberately breeding favourable (to humankind) traits into plants or animals, generating new strains or breeds. Humans have been doing this for thousands of years, resulting in cereal crops that look nothing like their wild ancestors, and all the many breeds of dog and cattle: it is, in fact, a far easier concept to grasp than natural selection. As for making new species altogether: we’re not there yet; synthetic biology is one of the new and fast-developing sciences. In fact, it was announced in the news just this week that Craig Venter has made a partially synthetic bacterium, but that’s as good as it gets. Not bad for someone who lived before cells had been discovered.

One final, general observation, which demonstrates the uniting of Bacon the empiricist with Bacon the futurist. He describes his extraordinary list of research topics, rather charmingly, as “Magnalia Naturae, Praecipue Quoad Usus Humanos”: “The wonderful works of Nature, chiefly such as benefit mankind.” In the De Augmentis, Bacon uses the term magnalia naturae (as opposed to magnalia Dei, wonderful works of god) to describe a type of “natural magic”, which, free from actual magical or superstitious influences, will:

Discover the universal consents of things…a science which applies the knowledge of hidden forms to the production of wonderful operations; and by uniting (as they say) actives with passives, displays the wonderful work of nature.

This sounds like so much flowery waffle: pretty, but insubstantial, but read it closely and you find a beautiful, concise description of much of modern science: a science that has peered into the quantum nature of the atom, and given us supercomputers and mobile phones; a science that has seen the inner workings of the cell and cracked the genetic code, and given us both an appreciation of how life came to be, but also synthetic insulin and antibiotics. Science is a process of discovering these “universal consents of things”, and, once you know them, you can do things you couldn’t before. Or as my old chemistry teacher used to say, more prosaically: science is great, but the appliance of science is greater still.

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