Why the scientists?

Bridging humanities and sciences
Bridging humanities and sciences

At the heart of the Ordered Universe Project is the interdisciplinary collaboration between medievalists and scientists. In this way light is shed onto Grosseteste’s scientific work from very different angles, and this allows for an all-around and in-depth elucidation of his writings. That medievalists contribute to our understanding of medieval science seems straightforward and not a subject of debate. However, doubts are more likely to be raised about whether modern scientists can add anything useful at all in this endeavour.  Like many others who first hear about the Ordered Universe Project I was having these very doubts before joining the group during the FIDEM congress. Right at the start of the conference, Tom McLeish gave a conference presentation to address this question of why the scientists’ involvement in the project is beneficial. Amongst multiple aspects he talked about the realisation that science, when conceptualised as ‘groping for understanding’, is a very old aspect of human culture. Modern scientists were the heirs of Grosseteste’s work, he said, and it were interesting to analyse their reaction when faced with his writings. Instead of judging the (in-)correctness of Grosseteste’s models, scientists take from them the art of asking the right questions, which is crucial for making scientific investigations constructive.

My personal perspective on the usefulness of a modern scientific perspective on medieval science has changed a lot as a result of Tom’s presentation, the many discussions with project members and from being part of the group’s collaborative work during the congress. To my mind the scientists indeed make vital contributions, and these have crucially enhanced my appreciation for Grosseteste’s work. In what follows I will mention just a few aspects that I have found especially relevant.

Firstly, as Greti Dinkova-Bruun said during one of the afternoon workshops, medieval science often doesn’t really make sense to thedmrt4 modern reader, and is therefore often prematurely dismissed.  But, as she continued, rather than Grosseteste’s thoughts being incoherent and nonsensical, the caveat to our understanding may be his unfamiliar mode of presentation. By this she referred to his verbal descriptions of models that we would conceptualise mathematically and geometrically. Scientists offer just such a mathematical and geometric ‘translation’ of Grosseteste’s work, and they have found that the precision of mathematics and geometry complements well Grosseteste’s precise language and modelling. These translations enhance our understanding of medieval thought just as much, albeit in a very different way, as translations from Latin into modern languages do. In fact, the mathematical modelling hidden in the De colore became evident to me only after reading the functional analysis, which presents Grosseteste’s ideas graphically.

Most interestingly, in the Ordered Universe Project both scholarly and scientific translators work together to inform each others’ work. The scientists surely depend on the medievalists’ knowledge about which semantic concepts were attached to specific terms. Perhaps surprisingly, though, the scientists’ understanding of Grosseteste’s models has also fed back into the critical editions and linguistic translations. See as just one of many examples that in the De colore, the missing obscura (omitted in Baur’s edition) for a long time stood in the way of coherently mapping Grosseteste’s model, an obstacle that was surmounted by the interdisciplinary effort of the research group.

In addition, modern scientific methods make it possible to check whether Grosseteste’s conclusions follow based on his postulated axioms. Richard Bower used computer modelling technology to simulate that spheres indeed emerge from inwardly radiating lumen, just as described in the De luce. The scientists have thereby provided quantifiable evidence that within his framework Grosseteste reasoned coherently and accurately. To my mind this is very impressive indeed given the complexity of his models, and it is so irrespective of the fact that many fundamental assumptions of his are not held any more by modern science.

Furthermore, historians strive to put historical events into context by linking them in with what had been before and what came afterwards. Modern scientists are needed to follow through Grosseteste’s ideas forward in time until today. It is informative to see what medieval thoughts evolved into across generations of scientific thinkers, whilst keeping in mind that this evolution was not in a straight line but involved many divergences and dead ends. This mapping of medieval thoughts onto modern day science discoveries is enriching as long as it avoids anachronistic pitfalls of attributing this foresight to Grosseteste himself. In this respect it is important to stress that the scientists involved in the Ordered Universe Project do not see Grosseteste to be the father of the Big Bang theory or of quantum mechanics, but instead they draw fruitful parallels between scientific ideas in medieval and modern times.

Last but not least, one may claim that modern day scientists in some way get facilitated access to Grosseteste’s ideas because the questions they are asking today are similar to the ones he asked centuries ago. Therefore, it seems to me that the joint venture between medievalists and scientists can generate a complex and fascinating panorama view on medieval science. I personally can say that the insights I gained from being part of the Ordered Universe Project have broadened my horizons in terms of the relevance and methods of both history and science, and rather unexpectedly I have found that the two complement each other very well.


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