Physics World – Who was the first scientist?

The question ‘who was the first scientist’ crops up regularly in discussions connected with Grosseteste, a debate made famous by Crombie, with the strong rejoinders of Alexander Koyré. More often than not the question should be refined as ‘who was the first scientist in what has come to be defined as the western tradition’? There are a large number of candidates, from classical antiquity, especially within ancient Greek thought, through the Middle Ages, and into the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century.  A look around at some of the sculpted figures in the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, gives a good conspectus for some of the answers to this question. Here, in no particular chronological order we have Isaac Newton, Euclid, Francis Bacon, Galileo, Aristotle, and Hippocrates.


The sculptures formed part of the original conception of the museum, were paid for by private subscription, although only 19 were ever completed. Of these six, all carved in Caen stone, Newton, Galileo and Hippocrates were carved by Alexander Munro, Euclid by Joseph Durham, Francis Bacon by Thomas Woolner and Aristotle by Henry Armstead (with details from the fantastic Mapping Sculpture Project from Glasgow).

20140320_105531Amongst all of these famous scientific men, no place for Grosseteste; indeed the only medieval scientist to be included is Roger Bacon (sculpture by Henry Hope-Pinker). It is Bacon, more generally, and for good reasons, who is often numbered first amongst those working within an experimental methodology and cast of mind. Nevertheless, Grosseteste’s place remains important in this discussion. The bolder claims of Crombie aside, the language of experimetum is evident in Grosseteste’s writing. What that means is another complex question, and raises the issue of how past practice and thought are to be understood. A recent article by Brian Clegg, in Physics World, focused again on Bacon, and raised questions about how investigations from the past should be judged. Some of the Ordered Universe, led by Brian Tanner, were moved to reply to the article, which, by kind permission of the editors of Physics World, is re-produced here: ‘Bacon’s Predecessor’. We thought it might be of interest. Who was the first scientist? The debate continues, but the cultural parameters by which these identifications and judgments are made, are, in many respects, as important as the content and development of their own work and subject-matter.

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