Interdisciplinarity – chances and challenges

It took me some time to realise how rare truly interdisciplinary work is at the research level. For me as an undergraduate student, cross-subject talk within friendship groups is something that I have always taken for granted. Since I have been introduced to the Ordered Universe Project I have learned firstly that only few scholars and scientists collaborate with each other, and secondly that such collaboration bears the potential for a uniquely broad and deep perspective. To see how researchers from humanities and sciences work together in an open-minded, patient and accommodating fashion has been very impressive, as this research methodology allows for an elucidation of Grosseteste’s writings at multiple different levels.

IMG_1814OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERADuring the week in Porto and the workshop in Durham I also got some insights into the challenges inherent in interdisciplinary endeavours, as scholars and scientists often have been taught very different ‘languages.’ Discrepancies start with respect to how they present their work: humanities scholars give papers, scientists give freely spoken presentations. Also, various terms such as (first/prime) matter, mass, body and form are heavily loaded in different ways across disciplines, and to avoid miscommunication and misunderstandings clear definitions are indispensable.  This need for clarification as to what is meant by the terms used reminded me of my philosophy essays, in which I often find myself struggling through a bulk of definitions before finally getting to the point I want to make. This can be a tiresome yet very rewarding process, due to the fact that it achieves clarity even for non-professional readers and thus makes the text accessible to a wide audience.

IMG_0139Interdisciplinarity entails diversity not only in terminology but also in the fundamental questions that are asked. Whilst medievalists are heavily concerned with the historical context and the role of influential sources, scientists are used to pondering over the principles underlying observable phenomena. In the Ordered Universe Project, both these research approaches are combined in order to understand how Grosseteste made sense of colour, light and rainbows.

When doing so, the scientists have to resist the temptation of anachronistic attributions, i.e. of seeing in Grosseteste the founder father of e.g. modern big bang and quantum theory. This entails, as Tom McLeish put it in his conference presentation, that it is not the aim to judge the (in-)correctness of medieval science. Instead, one tries to show that Grosseteste had physical, mathematical and geometrical ideas in mind that were coherent within his axiomatic framework.

Phil Anderson explicating the rainbow

To overcome the dangers of anachronism is a continuous process, especially because it can be difficult to define where precisely its boundary lies with enriching parallels between medieval and modern science. This issue was nicely illustrated in the Q&A session following Brian Tanner’s presentation on how Grosseteste’s axioms and methods resonate with contemporary science. Phil Anderson made the connection between the Grossetestian model of light giving extension to matter and the more recent suggestion that electromagnetic waves keep atoms from collapsing. He then asked whether we were allowed to talk about this, given Tom’s warning to stay away from anachronisms. In his response Tom drew a very useful distinction. On the one hand, there is the projection of modern day scientific knowledge onto Grosseteste, suggesting that he foresaw discoveries that were to be made much later. On the other hand, there’s the following forward in time of Grossetestian ideas, to see what they evolved into over generations of scientific thinkers. This goes together with an analysis of his methodology of approaching unexplained phenomena.  In this respect there are many similarities with contemporary approaches, as Brian outlined in his fascinating talk. The research group has to strike the fine line between making full use of the elucidating input modern scientists can give to the project, whilst being aware not to take Grosseteste’s models out of their historical context. They successfully manage this careful calibration by discussing new, out of the box suggestions in an open-minded, friendly and constructive atmosphere, which I personally have found very refreshing and a pleasure to be part of.


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