Francis Bacon on the acceleration of time

This is a discussion of the notion of acceleration of time in different natural processes, as occurring in Francis Bacon’s Sylva Sylvarum, Century IV, experiments [301-354].

Keywords: acceleration of time: of liquors, of putrefaction, of growth, of stature, vivification, spirits.

Among the inter magnalia naturae which Bacon discusses in his works, the acceleration of time is one of the most important, for Bacon places it next to the creation of matter in divine miracles (introduction to century IV). The Verulam presents a twofold motivation for pursuing the acceleration of time in nature: “it is a spur to nature” and “of good use”. From the first observation one can infer that Bacon seems to do nothing than to present a process which takes place inside the boundaries of nature and which normally would develop in a larger period of time. Here is a presentation of some of Bacon’s most important examples of acceleration of time: acceleration of liquor’s clarification, of maturation, of putrefaction, of birth and of growth and stature.

1. Acceleration of liquors’ clarification.

Bacon talks about different types of accelerations and starts with discussing at some length the acceleration of liquors’ clarification. Here is, in a word, the strategy for achieving this task: “to know the means of accelerating clarification, we must first know the causes of clarification” [301]. And among the causes listed, the first one can be called mechanical (weight, motion, activity, percolation, etc): the separation between grosser and finer parts of the liquor; the second cause is the settlement of equal equilibrium between tangible and pneumatic and the third cause is the refining of the spirit itself.

After Bacon lists the causes, he moves to proposing some trails, which can be classified under three categories of experiments, as follows:

▪ instances of separation: [305], [307], [308], – percolation [311]

▪ instances of equilibrium: [309], [310]

▪ instances of the refining of the spirit [306], [309], [310]


2. Acceleration of maturation [312].

Bacon talks of several types of accelerations of maturation: of drinks, fruits, impostures and ulcers, metals; he also mentions that the one on “impostures and ulcers” will be tackled throughout the section “experiments medicinal”, but this has never appeared among Sylva’s entries.

a) maturation of drinks takes place by the congregation of spirits together and so it looks similar with clarification of liquors: “is effected partly by the same means that clarification is…” [312]. Examples of maturation of drinks are seen in must, wine and vinegar [313]. It is worth to note here that Bacon is plain here that spirits are endowed with motions, as the following examples suggest: “enforcing the motion of the spirit” [314]… “enforce the spirits by some mixtures” [314]. As in general for Bacon, the spirit seems to be here a more fundamental concept as motion. The question that opens up is what is the relationship between spirit and motion and the readers of this post are invited to express their opinion on this issue, too.

b) maturation of fruits is done by “calling forth of the spirits of the body outward…”, by digestion of the grosser parts – by heat, motion, attraction, putrefaction. Putrefaction therefore starts with maturation [317].

During his talk of maturation, Bacon also makes an interesting remark on the possibility to perform transmutations on bodies: “But we, when we shall come to handle the version and transmutation of bodies, and the experiments concerning metals and minerals, will lay open the true ways and passages of nature, which may lead to this great effect” [326]. One important question to ask here is: are those transmutations done within the boundaries of nature or not? Later on in the same entry, Bacon seems to be saying yes to the first option and contrasts it with the alchemist interpretation: “The sixth is, that you give time enough for the work; not to prolong hopes (as the alchemists do), but indeed to give nature a convenient space to work in”.


3. (Inducing and) Acceleration of putrefaction.

Putrefaction precedes generation, both being taken as the true boundaries of nature “or the guides to life and death” (introduction before [329]). Putrefaction is defined as being caused by a motion “confused and inordinate”, while on the contrary, vivification appears when the motion “has a certain order” [344].


4. Experiment solitary touching the acceleration of birth.

Bacon gives here two causes for the acceleration of birth: the rapid development of the embryo and the expulsion of it from the mother [353]. He altogether rejects the old thesis that this acceleration might suffer decisively from astral influences.


5. Experiment solitary touching the accelerating of growth and stature (of children) [354]

Bacon lists here three causes for speeding up growth and stature.

  1. Plenty of nourishment
  2. Nature of nourishment
  3. Exciting natural heat

The first one is not always recommended for it can be hurtful for the child. The second warns us not to feed the children with over-dry nourishment for this impedes growth. And finally, cold nourishment should be avoided in childhood for generally “heat [and not cold] is requisite for growth”, though a mature man should be more open to cold for it helps with condensing and preserving the spirit.




Bacon on the transmutation of species

In The New Atlantis Bacon presents an image about how science would develop if performed according to his method. Here the members of Solomon’s house have gardens not for beauty, but to grow trees and plants which are useful for sustaining and improving life. In order to achieve their ends, the members performed various experiments which varied the conditions for sowing, growing or altering the plants. In the “laboratories” of the Solomon’s house methods for obtaining plants without seeds are elaborated and even the possibilities to procure new kinds of plants out of combination of old ones or, more strikingly, by performing transmutations of one plant into a new species of plant are contemplated.

The aim of this post is to present a very short overview of this last concept of the transmutation of species, which seems to provide us with one of the most daring ideas in Bacon’s natural philosophy. The discussion will be limited here to Bacon’s reflections on transmutation as elaborated in Sylva Sylvarum (SS). There Bacon introduces it as one of the greatest achievements one can ever get when operating upon nature:

“This work of the transmutation of plants one into another, is inter magnalia naturae: for the transmutation of species is, in the vulgar philosophy, pronounced impossible; and certainly it is a thing of difficulty, and required deep search into nature; but seeing there appear some manifest instances of it, the opinion of impossibility is to be rejected, and the means thereof to be found out” (SS, 525-526)

Bacon’s notion of species is rather a complex one. In the 4th aphorism of Parasceve, Bacon gives us a hint at what species could mean for him. In defining the role of the four elements: air, earth, fire, water, Bacon assigns an important role to them not because they should be taken as the primordial components of all bodies but because they form the “greatest masses of all natural bodies” or the Greater College, sharing in a simple schematism of matter. Whereas the Lesser College of bodies, as Bacon calls it, is made of species of natural things whose “texture of matter is highly structured and subtle, and for the most part determinate and organic [Organicam], such as are the species of natural things – metals, plants and animals” (OFB XI, p. 455.). And if from this one can shortly infer that the organization of matter along those schematisms is the specific determinant of species of plants and animals, one should acknowledge on the other side Giambattista Della Porta’s Magia Naturalis (Naples, 1558) as having a great role in fostering the topic of transmutation in the epoch.

Della Porta reserves a chapter of his book to the issue of transmutation of plants by explicitly acknowledging the transmutation of animal species as the key example for transmutation. This is also why he starts his Magia Naturalis with a chapter on animal copulation for these natural events that were used to be firstly observed to happen in Africa to be closely followed as model for combining species into new ones. Bacon seems to take up this idea ad literam and admits that such a work should be easier to do within the realm of plants than with animals for the former in contrast with the last manifest no voluntary motion: “We see that in living creatures, that have male and female, there is copulation of several kinds; and so compound creatures; as the mule that is generated betwixt the horse and the ass; and some other compound which we call monsters, though more rare” (SS, 477). Bacon also seems to closely follow Della Porta in what concerns the means to accomplish the task of transforming the species of plants, but he ends up with different conclusions. For example, he sets aside the aspect of acceleration of germination so much emphasized by Della Porta for he thinks that changing of some of these properties does not equate with the change of the species per se. This becomes more obvious when Bacon treats of degeneration, which Della Porta favors as a very useful tool for transmutation of species too. At a first sight, Bacon seems to accept the idea of plants degenerating into other species. He gives the example of mint, colewort and rape:

”The rule is certain, that plants for want of culture degenerate to be baser in the same kind; and sometimes so far as to change into another kind. 1. The standing long, and not being removed, maketh them degenerate. 2. Drought, unless the earth of itself be moist, doth the like. 3. So doth removing into worse earth, or forbearing to compost the earth; as we see that water-mint turneth into field-mint, and the colewort into rape, by neglect, &c.” (SS, 518).

One reason Bacon gives for this situation is to invoke the „adventitious nature” of plants of culture, which can be easily altered and modified. However, this does not count as a genuine transmutation for Bacon’s taste, but it is rather a degeneration of one species into a baser species. In other words, what one encounters here is rather an intra-specific variation rather than a genuine transmutation of species: Mint is tranformed again in mint and colewort and rape are both species of the same genus because, as we nowadays know, they pertain to the same Brassica family, together with cabbages, cauliflowers and turnips. Bacon himself observes this subtle link between the species that form the basis for degeneration and some other more specified-species which degenerate into the basic ones, for he explains the degeneration of basil into thyme by saying that “those two herbs seem to have small affinity” (SS, 521).

The issue at stake here is the significance of the “newness” characterizing the plant resulted from transmutation. Bacon seems to work here with a much stronger notion of novelty than Della Porta’s. For Bacon thus, acceleration and retardation are just means to make simple or superficial changes of properties but not of the species themselves. And even when these species change by retardation this does not count as a genuine transmutation for Bacon. The obvious question that opens up here is what this change should actually mean in order to qualify itself as a true transmutation? Perhaps surprisingly, given Bacon’s general reluctance to alchemy, the paradigm for his interpretation of transmutation seems to come from alchemy and from its work of transmuting bodies one into another:

“And there are of concoction two periods; the one assimilation, or absolute conversion and subaction; the other maturation: whereof the former is most conspicuous in the bodies of living creatures; in which there is an absolute conversion and assimilation of the nourishment into the body; and likewise in the bodies of plants; and again in metals, where there is a full transmutation. (…) But note that there be two kinds of absolute conversions; the one is, when a body is converted into another body, which was before; as when nourishment is turned into flesh: that is it which we call assimilation. The other is, when the conversion is into a body merely new, and which was not before; as if silver should be turned to gold, or iron to copper: and this conversion is better called, for distinction’s sake, transmutation” (SS, 838).

The creation of the “new” is thus the aim of transmutation and the model of it seems to come from alchemy: silver turned to gold or iron to cooper play the role of paradigms for the transmutation of one plant species into a “new” one, like say, apples into pears:

“We see that in living creatures that come of putrefaction there is much transmutation of one into another, as caterpillars turn into flies… And it should seem probable that whatsoever creature, having life, is generated without seed, that creature will change out of one species into another. For it is the seed and the nature of it which locket and boundeth in the creature, that it doth not expatiate. So as we may well conclude, that seeing the earth of itself doth puth forth plants without seed, therefore plants may well have a transmigration of species” (SS, 525).

But since most of plants do have seeds, what should one do to overcome this impediment for transmuting them? Bacon proposes the following solution: “First therefore, you must make account, that you will have one plant change into another, you must have the nourishment over-rule the seed…” (SS, 526).

In my next post I will move to the details of this rule of the overcoming of the seeds and to uncovering some of the possible sources of this Baconian paradigm of transmutation of species.

Comments and suggestions are more than welcomed.

Francis Bacon and the use of measurement in experiments

One central component of experimental philosophy is measurement. Various properties, quantities, degrees and qualities were counted and measured with more or less exactitude starting with the early modern period (see for example, the analysis of temperature measurement in A.Borrelli, “The weatherglass and its observers in the early seventeenth century”, in: Claus Zittel, Gisela Engel, Nicole C. Karafyllis and Romano Nanni (eds.), Philosophies of technology: Francis Bacon and its contemporaries, vol. 1 (Leiden: Brill, 2008) 67-130 (Intersections 11/1)). Seen in itself, measurement was almost universally considered a tool meant to improve knowledge and to give strength to different arguments and to rebut others. This attitude was shared by Francis Bacon too, as I briefly attempted to show in a small presentation I have made for the 4th Bucharest Colloquium in Early Modern Science. One can infer this from the following example taken from Bacon’s Sylva Sylvarum:

“It is strange how the ancients took up experiments upon credit, and yet did build great matters upon them. The observation of some of the best of them, delivered confidently, is, that a vessel filled with ashes will receive the like quantity of water that it would have done if it had been empty. But this is utterly untrue; for the water will not go in by a fifth part. And I suppose that that fifth part is the difference of the lying close or open of the ashes…” (Sylva Sylvarum, SEH 34).

There are many other examples of experiments in which Bacon used to invoke the measurement and counting of quantities in order to champion his ideas (see for instance, entries 1, 19, 21, 32, 33, 46, 59, 60, 76, 88, 104-110, 156, 159, 248, 306, 307, 309, 310, 318, 324, 363 etc, to give just few examples taken from the first three centuries of Sylva). Here are two more extended examples:

“Dig a pit upon the sea-shore, somewhat above the high-water mark, and sink it as deep as the low-water mark; and as the tide cometh in, it will fill with water, fresh and potable… I remember to have read that trial hath been made of salt water passed through earth, through ten vessels one within another, and yet it hath not lost his saltness, as to become potable: but the same man saith, that (…) salt water drained through twenty vessels hath become fresh… But it is worth the note, how poor the imitations of nature are in common course of experiments, except they be led by great judgment, and some good light of axioms. For first, there is no small difference between a passage of water through twenty small vessels, and through such a distance as between the low-water and high-water mark…” (Sylva Sylvarum, SEH 1-2)


“The continuance of flame, according unto the diversity of the body inflamed, and other circumstances, is worthy the inquiry; chiefly, for that though flame be (almost) of a momentary lasting, yet it receiveth the more and the less: we will first therefore speak (at large) of bodies inflamed wholly and immediately, without any wick to help the inflammation. A spoonful of spirit of wine, a little heated, was taken, and it burnt as long as came to one hundred and sixteen pulses. The same quantity of spirit of wine mixed with the sixth part of a spoonful of nitre, burnt but to the space of ninety-four pulses. Mixed with the like quantity of bay-salt, eighty-three pulses. Mixed with the like quantity of gunpowder, which dissolved into black water, one hundred and ten pulses. A cube or pellet of yellow wax was taken, as much as half the spirit of wine, and set in the midst, and it burnt only to the space of eighty-seven pulses. Mixed with the sixth part of a spoonful of milk, it burnt to the space of one hundred pulses. Mixed with the sixth part of a spoonful of water, it burnt to the space of eighty-six pulses… So that the spirit of wine simple endured the longest; and the spirit of wine with the bay-salt, and the equal quantity of water, were the shortest.” (Sylva Sylvarum, SEH 366)

I propose the following table as a tool for a concise representation of Bacon’s measurement of the continuance of flame:

  • Spirit of wine = 116 pulses
  • Spirit of wine + 1/6 nitre = 94 pulses
  • Spirit of wine + 1/6 bay-salt = 83 pulses
  • Spirit of wine + 1/6 gunpowder = 110 pulses
  • Cube of yellow wax + ½ spirit of wine = 87 pulses
  •  Cube of yellow wax + wine + 1/6milk = 100 pulses
  • Cube of yellow wax + wine + 1/6 water = 86 pulses


This raises a plenty of interesting questions dealing with the way Bacon uses measurement that is worth to be discussed. Here is a tentative list with few of them:

–          What type of measurements does Bacon employ?

–          What type of quantities or qualities is subjected to measurement by Bacon?

–          What other examples of Bacon’s measurements can be represented by such tables?

–          In what theoretical cases is measurement invoked?

–          How important is the exactitude in the measurements?

–          When does measurement help in constructing an argument and when does it help in rejecting other’s arguments?

–          Is measurement an effective tool in building up the theory of matter?

–          Is measurement used independently of Bacon’s theory of matter?

The examples of measurements Sylva Sylvarum presents can be a good starting point for the discussion of these points. Different answers to these questions can also set the stage for a comparative analysis between Bacon’s use of measurement and other philosophical treatments of it.

We would love to hear your comments, suggestions and thoughts on these matters, so please leave us a comment.

P. Melanchthon (1497-1560)

Philipp Melanchthon (1497-1560), Divine Providence and the Foundations of Modern Science

 Peter Harrison’s book The Fall of Man and the Foundations of Science (Oxford University Press, 2007) brought forth a very attractive thesis for the explanation of the origins of early modern philosophy, namely the idea that the interest for the natural philosophy primarily emerged from anthropological preoccupations and not from epistemological concerns. The thesis championed is that, due especially to Protestant influence, the concerns regarding early natural philosophy were determined by the aim to vindicate the dramatic consequences the Fall had upon human capacities. More exactly, the argument goes, ‘The experimental approach [forming this natural philosophy]… was deeply indebted to Augustinian views about the limitations of human knowledge in the wake of the Fall…’ (p. 8). Despite the argument and the examples mainly refer to the English settlement, the thesis is taken to hold for Continental Europe too (pp. 4-5). A very interesting example for this is that of the Reformator Philipp Melanchthon (1497-1560), shortly presented in the 3rd chapter of Harrison’s book (esp. pp. 97-103). Melanchthon was one of Luther’s closest friends and the author of the first Protestant credal statement, expressed in the Augsburg Confession (1530). He had remarkable skills in Ancient Greek, a language that he taught at the University of Wittenberg, together with other courses on natural philosophy that he taught after he took upon himself the mission of reforming the curricula of the German universities (see Kusukawa, 1995). Melanchthon’s openness to the natural sciences (mathematics, medicine, astronomy, astrology etc) was partly determined by some events (Peasant’s War) occurring in his biography but also by his specific theological understanding of the Fall. Although he had the same opinion with Luther that the Fall destroyed the divine image implanted by God in man at the moment of creation, he nonetheless took a more positive stance with regard to the consequences of this event by postulating that some ‘vestiges’ of the divine light remained in the human soul under the form of principles or notions. He considered that these notions play the role of conditions for the possibility of attaining knowledge (Frank, 1995).

Harrison is aware that these theological justifications for gaining knowledge through sciences coming from Melanchthon ‘is a slightly different perspective from that which will be developed by English Calvinists, for whom the scope of natural philosophy is itself determined by theological anthropology’ (p. 99).

One of the aims of our research on P. Melanchthon is to investigate into the details of this difference. More exactly, we intend to read into Melanchthon’s emphasis upon sciences seen as depositories of God’s providence the theological justification for a whole Protestant programme of natural philosophy. Therefore, we intend to explore a more positive scenario, according to which approaches to early modern philosophy originate in the power of the human mind to decipher God’s providence as instantiated in the sciences. We will thus try to answer to questions of the following type:

-what is the relationship between divine providence, inborn notions and the sciences in Melanchthon’s and also in his fellows’ thought?

-is Melanchthon’s natural philosophy based solely on mathematical knowledge or it also deals with experience-based knowledge? (see the post on ‘universal experience’)

-what examples of Melanchthon-type arguments for the natural philosophy can be found in the early modern English thought, especially given the fact that Melanchthon might have had some influence in the English world? (see Tredwell, 2006)

-what are the features of the method of astrology in Melanchthon’s reply to Pico della Mirandola?

-what is the relationship Melanchthon posits between divine providence and man’s capacity for ruling nature? ( ‘… if someone were to pay attention to them [Astrological indications], he would have a great support for ruling nature’ (P. Melanchthon, The Dignity of Astrology (1535), translated in Kusukawa (1999, pp. 121-2))



Harrison, P., The Fall of Man and the Foundations of Science, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Frank, G., Die Theologische Philosophie Philipp Melanchthons (1497-1560), Leipzig: Benno 1995.

Kusukawa, S., The Transformation of Natural Philosophy: the case of Philip Melanchthon, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Kusukawa, S., (ed.), Philip Melanchthon. Orations on Philosophy and Education, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Tredwell, K. A., The Melanchthon’s Circle’s English Epicycle, Centaurus 2006, 48 (1), pp. 23-31.