Francesco Redi And The First Science Experiment
    By Hank Campbell | May 10th 2011 09:47 AM | 9 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
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    I had a question posed to me last week; 'what was the first science experiment?'

    The downside to knowing a lot, including copious amounts of trivia and a completely unnecessary pantheon of movie quotes, is an occasional inability to answer a simple question simply.   I was somewhat stumped because much of what we think of as science was really engineering that required some knowledge of natural laws, for example Archimedes and his bathtub or Archimedes (again) with his death ray(1), so I wanted to factor those out, but I am sure my answer was not what most people expected because it is not a famous name.   Will you agree?   Perhaps not, because of the term 'experiment', but even that would be something we have to argue about.

    Science experiments really began when we progressed from observation and determination to observation, wondering about that, making a hypothesis about it and then testing it.   Before the scientific method, if you wanted answers, you naturally looked toward the most obvious thing or you tried a lot and figured out what worked.  For example, if you noticed that after heavy rains worms were on the ground, ancient man might have concluded mud made worms - that is a fairly linear conclusion based on observation.    But if you have sailors on your ship suffering from gonorrhea(2) in the 1500s, as did some on the Mary Rose, and your medical solution involves injecting mercury into their urethra you are just making stuff up.   Though we have to assume that worked since the sailors likely died from mercury poisoning rather than gonorrhea.

    In the 1600s, an Italian came along who took us beyond the engineering of Archimedes and into the age of the controlled experiment.   You think I am going to say Galileo, right?
    No, I am picking Francesco Redi from 1668.    He noticed that meat carcasses at a slaughterhouse had flies all around them, a common occurrence before refrigeration and the assumption had always been that rotting meat created maggots, the fly larvae.    But he was an educated man and did not accept that rotting meat was creating flies, he believed that flies created flies - so he set out to challenge meat to create flies and the modern scientific method using controlled experimentation was born.

    Esperienze intorno alla generazione degl' Insetti Francesco Redi
    Redi published his description of the experiment (1668) and you can see it in Esperienze intorno alla generazione degl' Insetti.  Scroll over to page 187.

    Redi filled eight jars with meat and then covered four of the jars with cloth. Maggots developed in the variously less covered jars but did not develop in the completely cloth-covered jars.

    By eliminating as many unknowns as possible, by controlling the experiment with great detail, Redi was able to prove conclusively that meat was not creating maggots.

    The maggot experiment also put a stake in the heart of spontaneous generation, a religious tenet, so why did Redi not have issues with the Medicis and the Church the way Galileo did if, as we are constantly told, religion hates science?    People invented all kinds of rationales for Galileo's problems which were completely exculpatory of him - in unscientific fashion - like that Italian language rather than Latin was a problem, the Church adored Aristotle, etc. - but the testing of those took looking no further than examining the treatment of Redi a generation later, who also wrote in Italian and kicked around Aristotle.

    No one will ever know but my guess would be that style had more to do with Galileo than religion hating science.  Galileo was not very well liked by anyone, including by other scientists, and Redi was a neutral personality.   Galileo may have introduced the modern experimental method but Redi created the first controlled experiment, and his clear methodology didn't open him up to personal attacks the way Galileo did.   His research also didn't overreach its data.  Anyone who wanted to insist spontaneous generation did not occur in flies but had in the past could happily do so.

    Am I contending Redi was the first to recognize you want to control as many variables as possible?  Not at all, just like no one would really contend Galileo's method had not been outlined by earlier natural philosophers - but Redi is the first controlled experiment we can document.   And in science, that counts for a lot. 


    (1) Really, though, didn't Archimedes do the coolest stuff?
    (2) Also known as 'the clap', either because they removed the pus-like discharge by 'clapping' the penis on both sides or because French brothels were known as les clapiers.  Your call.



    Apart from the bathtub episode, don’t you mean Aristotle, rather than Archimedes?

    In his Dialogo, Galileo really put his foot in it by having the Pope’s side of things represented by the Aristotelian philosopher Simplicio.  If this sounds like ‘simpleton’ to us, even more so back in those days.  That would have been equivalent to representing the opposing argument in the person of Duns Scotus, from whom we get the term ‘dunce’ (after his scholasticism had gone out of fashion.)

    After leafing though a few pages of the Esperienze, I have come across plenty of references to Aristotile, but not yet one to Archimede.

    Nevertheless, a most interesting bit of history, for which mille grazie.

    Robert H. Olley / Quondam Physics Department / University of Reading / England
    Gah.  I did mean Archimedes for bathtubs and death rays and general engineering and then Aristotle for spontaneous generation, science and the Church at the end.   Thanks for catching it - it shows how much I like Archimedes; I give him credit for everything.
    Yet again euro-centric views of science and history barge on unfortunately!

    Please refer to Ibn al-Haytham's (Al Hazen as the Italians of the Renaissance called him) well documented experimental methods in his Book of Optics ( dated 1021). Earliest published controlled experiments that I know of.

    And one of many others before 1688...

    Not the case at all.   Ibn al-Haytham is the topic of 5 articles here, including Ibn Al-Haytham - The Mad Egyptian Polymath Who Proved Aristotle Wrong.    What I discussed here is the first documented controlled experiment.  Like Galileo, al-Haytham was not doing that but Redi was.
    Hi Hank, as far as I am aware controlled testing was what distinguished al-Haytham's work from his peers of the time (11th century), and all very well documented as Doctor Mirabilis will no doubt tell you. Please note from the knoll below:

    Neuroscientist Rosanna Gorini notes that "according to the majority of the historians al-Haytham was the pioneer of the modern scientific method."[16][71] Ibn al-Haytham developed rigorous experimental methods of controlled scientific testing to verify theoretical hypotheses and substantiate inductive conjectures.[30] Ibn al-Haytham's scientific method was very similar to the modern scientific method and consisted of the following procedures:....

    Interestingly, while googling for one of al-Haytham's experiments to link here, I instead found a wiki article on the timeline of scientific experiments, according to which Jābir ibn Hayyān (Geber) introduced the experimental method and controlled experiment in chemistry in the 8th century AD. Many of his books seem to have been preserved well and translated to English so his experiments are probably documented in them.

    I instead found a wiki article on the timeline of scientific experiments, according to which Jābir ibn Hayyān (Geber) introduced the experimental method and controlled experiment in chemistry in the 8th century AD.
    I said in the first paragraph people might not agree.  If we are going to use unverifiable sources, the first controlled experiment could be in the Bible too but that would lead back to your accusation that everyone only thinks in terms of the western world.
    Hank, I included Geber's work as an aside for interested readers - you have now twice chosen to ignore my comments on al-Haytham's extremely well documented and verified controlled experiments. I really don't know what else to say about your adamancy in the face of long well established and verified fact in the scientific community except to perhaps visit the Bodleian Library in Oxford and read the original manuscripts yourself.

    I have no issue with that.
    Will you agree? Perhaps not
    Han Solo,

    I am one of the resident fans of Ibn al-Haytham on this site, but please be a little careful when you refer to Geber.  I quote from God’s Philosophers, by James Hannam:

    The acids, as well as alcohol, appear to have been isolated by [European] alchemists in the thirteenth century by a process known as condensation, but for many years it was assumed that the Arabs had produced them much earlier.  We now know that this misconception was caused by Christians attributing their texts to Arabic writers.  We’ve already seen the tendency of esoteric manuscripts to be ascribed to a famous author to increase their credibility.  Alchemists were particularly prone to this and their favourite pseudonym was the Arabic savant Geber, who was active in the ninth century.  It is far from clear that any of the works ascribed to him are genuine, but the accretion of titles to his name has led to him being accredited with all sorts of innovations, such as the distillation of acids, which he did not actually make.

    In an endnote, Hannam states:

    ... to date, [critics] have been unable  to produce the relevant Arabic versions of the relevant Latin texts.  This may change as more Middle Eastern libraries are explored and catalogued.

    Robert H. Olley / Quondam Physics Department / University of Reading / England