Culturally-significant texts – Across genres, across the ages



Novum Organum

Novum Organum
Francis Bacon

“New Instrument” would be the English title – a new instrument of science, of logic, which would come to be known as ‘the Baconian method’. Observation of phenomena, reduction of those observations to their core similarities or dissimilarities – it is a gradual process, it takes time and commitment and slow, careful study of what is in order to derive what general principles might lie behind the specific. It’s induction, the opposite of deduction, the opposite of assumed truths that take shape in particularities. Scientific method? Not really. But it’s close, it’s in the same order of thinking, and it certainly is important in the development of empiricism and the methodical, observational approach of science. But Bacon is a philosopher not a scientist. He’s not out to discover anything in particular, but to examine the nature of existence, of truth, of knowledge.

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Germ Theory and its Application to Medicine and Surgery

Germ Theory and its Application to Medicine and Surgery
Louis Pasteur

Fermentation is a biological process carried out by micro-organisms. And that little discovery changed the world. ‘Pasteurized’ as in milk, the existence of vaccines, home-brewing – they all owe a whole lot to Louis Pasteur who laid the groundwork for microbiology and biochemistry and gave us some of the most basic foundations of modern scientific knowledge. All over the world, universities, hospitals and city streets are named for him, a man known as one of the greatest benefactors of the contemporary world. Continue reading “Germ Theory and its Application to Medicine and Surgery”

Arabic Works

Arabic Works
Jabir Ibn Hayyan
785 – 815

Astronomer, mathemetician, medical doctor, philosopher, chemist, scholar of music and grammar, and perhaps the first to actively explore alchemy. And on and on and on. The man did it all. Quite literally – you’d be hard pressed to find some area of exploration, contemplation, study, that Jabir Ibn Hayyan did not engage with. Some 3,000 works of scholarship and argument are associated with his name (though some perhaps penned by his students), works that draw widely on earlier scholars of Greece, Persia, Egypt.

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First Principles

First Principles
Herbert Spencer

In London’s Highgate Cemetary, the tombstone of Karl Marx looks out over another slab of rock, this one marking the interred remains of Herbert Spencer – at least as well-known and intellectually significant in in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, but largely forgotten shortly thereafter but for this simple phrase, “survival of the fittest”. Yup. That’s Spencer. Sociologist, biologist, philosopher, political theorist, radical democrat-turned-conservative, and the guy who planned to lay out for all the world to see a universal science/ philosophy in which the progressive force of evolution explained not only biological development but psychology, social order, and political life. Not enough? Not just evolutionary process but a rule of universal natural law would explain just about everything, once it was identified and explained. And Spencer figured he was the man to do it.

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Discourse on the Method

Discourse on the Method
Rene Descartes

A cornerstone of modern philosophy, Descartes’ Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting One’s Reason and of Seeking Truth roots itself in the importance of skepticism to the pursuit of knowledge, the attempt to doubt everything, question everything, presume nothing at the outset of scientific or philosophical investigation. The book applies this method to a couple of different cases, most notably the existence of God, the physics of nature, and the functioning of the body, but it is not his insights into any of these but rather his fundamental premise that has proved of such lasting significance. Thus while the work’s most famous line – “I think, therefore I am” – comes from a hugely problematic reflection on the existence of God, it is a less-remembered premise that underpins the book, and indeed is considered by many to provide the cornerstone for all philosophy since: “[To] never to accept anything for true which I did not clearly know to be such”.

Discourse extends the principle of scientific inquiry based on doubt, logic and proof to the question of philosophy and general knowledge. In place of initial hypotheses, which depend themselves upon assumption, it is only logic, the careful application of human thought, which can ultimately be relied upon in learning. It is only the rational human mind that can surpass all received wisdom and can make reliable observations of the physical senses. It is no small contribution. With Descartes, European philosophy breaks with the near-hegemony of Aristotle which had previously held sway. With Descartes, we begin to enter what is called the Age of Enlightenment. With Descartes, the world changes.


Approx. 330 BCE

Where does one even begin? Student to Plato, instructor to Alexander the Great, and the first in the western tradition to develop a truly comprehensive philosophy of the world. Science, logic, physics, theology, morality, aesthetics – if you are tracing the history of knowledge you are going to confront and be humbled by Aristotle, full stop.

Aristotle sought to explain the everything, the universal, the fullness of the natural world, human existence, and the physical properties of the universe. Where his master, Plato, began from the premise that everything existing was only a pale imitation of its metaphysical essence, Aristotle reversed the process, looking for answers to the universal by the study of the real-world particular. Not a materialist, in the sense that we use the term; but certainly the basis for materialism and for the scientific method that would develop in later centuries.

A giant is Aristotle, such that he was so well-regarded, his insight and wisdom so profound that approaching two thousand years later – well into the Renaissance – he remained the definitive authority on vast fields of knowledge – the correctness or incorrectness of his theories notwithstanding. And even in so short a summary it bears repeating – still today, if you are studying pretty much anything in depth you’re gonna have to deal with Aristotle. And you’re gonna be humbled.

The Book of Optics

The Book of Optics
Ibn al Haytham

Over a ten-year period, under house arrest for his refusal to follow state orders, scientist and philosopher Ibn al Haytham (known also as al-Basri) produced a monumental seven-volume work covering mathematics, psychology, physics, optics and more. The Book of Optics not only opened up optics as a whole new area of scientific enquiry; it is a foundational text of the scientific method, and the role of experimentation in particular, and was a major influence upon Europe’s scientific and philosophical revolution some centuries later.

Rays of light travel in straight lines? He’s the guy who proved it. The invention of the camera obscura? His. The variability of the speed of light? Yup, that’s him, too. And the first magnifying glass, and the method of hypothesis, experimentatation, analysis, conclusion which is the very basis of scientific scholarship. It’s all here in Ibn al Haytham. Outside of academic circles, his name is not widely known in the Euro-American tradition today, but to conduct a cursory review of those influenced by his work is to trace the wide arc of Europe’s most enduring thinkers – Leonardo da Vinci, Galileo, Isaac Newton, Rene Descartes, Francis Bacon and on and on and on.

If ever there was an example of how much knowledge we miss by limiting ourselves to the European tradition, and how much that tradition itself owes to others, and the intellectuals of the Arab world in particular, it’s Ibn al Haytham. OK, you may not want to read the seven volumes of The Book of Optics. But read about this guy, and learn his name, We owe him that much.

Experiments on Plant Hybridization

Experiments on Plant Hybridization
Gregor Mendel

Gregor Mendel, Austrian scientist and monk, is recognized as one of the most significant thinkers in the area of plant biology and the father of the science of genetics. After years of detailed study involving the plants in his monastery’s gardens – and some 29,000 pea plants in particular – Mendel discovered the ways that dominant and recessive genes operate to produce variations in species.

Mendel’s primary area of interest was in fact meteorology, and his theories regarding plant hybrids were widely criticized in his day and then, for some decades, largely ignored. Rediscovered in the early twentieth century, however, his work on hybridization combined with Darwin’s theory of natural selection to provide the very basis for much of what we now know about  heredity and genetic science. His work produced two distinct but related laws of science, together referred to as Medel’s Laws of Inheritance: the Law of Segregation, which outlines the existence of dominant and recessive genes and the ways that interact in the development of sex cells, and the Law of Independent Assortment, which states that traits are inherited independently of one another – i.e. though both inherited, the colour of one’s eyes and the size of one’s feet bear no relation to one another.

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