Scientists of the Late Middle Ages

“How did God do it?” was the question that puzzled the early founders of modern science. They began with the assumption that God created the universe and they wanted to discover the mysteries of his creation. Embedded in the assumption of creation is the belief that God created the universe within a plan. He was no mere wizard pointing a wand here and there, poofing trees and gazelles and planets into existence. The early scientists recognized patterns and a quality of interrelationship among the many aspects of creation. They sought to discover the key to God's creative work.

Robert Grosseteste (1175–1253), a Franciscan at Oxford University, was a minister dedicated to reforming the church. He practiced hermeneutics: insisting on studying the original texts whenever possible, he sought the author's intended meaning. He translated ancient documents and wrote a physics of Aristotle. Because of his love for learning, he invented a scientific method that involved using step-by-step procedures for testing his hypotheses. He found mathematics to be the key for investigating natural phenomena.

Timeless Truth

The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle believed that the sun moved around the earth. This was a common misconception based on observation. Still today, people talk about the sun rising and the sun setting even though it is known that the earth revolves around the sun. Nicholas Oresme (1330–1382) determined this scientific fact. He had to argue for his position against the accepted view of his day.

Grosseteste's student Roger Bacon (1214–1294) was also a Franciscan. Like Grosseteste, he believed that evidence for God's existence was found in nature. Through science, people would be so inspired by God's intricate and artistic creativity that they would yearn for a personal relationship with him. With this as his motive and utilizing his mentor's experimental methods, Bacon studied mathematics, physics, optics, and philosophy. He examined both rainbows and solar eclipses in his search for explanations of “how God did it.” Through his experiments, Bacon concluded that the earth was a sphere and that a ship could sail all the way around it. He also estimated the distance from the earth to the stars. He made predictions about modern eyeglasses, ships, and vehicles.

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