Ordered Universe joins The Conversation

For those of you that know, and those that don’t, The Conversation, is a new journalism project to promote academic discourse and debate. The Ordered Universe has posted a report and discussion piece, highlighting the collaborative nature of the project, and the surprising and stimulating results of that collaboration. We have put a focus on the article just out in the Proceedings of the Royal Society A, and the invitation that Grosseteste’s treatise, once puzzled through, offers to modern cosmological thought. The emphasis is surely on the invitation, and we are extremely sensitive to readings of the 13th century master which even hint at presentism or undue anachronism. As we know, reading Grosseteste is a slow, meditative and time-consuming process: the critical edition is in need of updating (through no fault of his own Baur had access to fewer than half of the manuscripts now known to exist, and the exigencies of travel and the pace of research in 1912 must be taken into account) and the act of translation, and interpretation, is a long and demanding process. Stylistically the treatises are dense, thick with allusions to other authorities, with knowledge assumed, and new knowledge adduced; Grosseteste’s Latin is taut and precise, but the very

Roger Bacon, Oxford Natural History Museum
Roger Bacon, Oxford Natural History Museum

precision makes the translation more difficult. Contextual difference comes into play here: do we translate molem as mass, which is perfectly reasonable, but we then encounter the issues of its  quite specific modern scientific meanings. Grosseteste is also a mathematical thinker, indeed it was this facility which impressed the next generation, notably Roger Bacon. Here, we encounter modern educational and disciplinary divisions; many in humanities do not have advanced research experience, background (or in my case, as my maths teacher would certainly concur, much natural instinct) in numerical analyses; in the same way that linguistic analysis (and translation), and longer contextual positioning are not always emphasised strongly in modern scientific training.

To this end, the multi-disciplinary interpretation is particularly suitable and apt to try and unlock Grosseteste’s texts. Without over-playing contextual relativism, we examine him where and when we are. We have been very fortunate to encounter and form a flexible group, with a wide variety of interpretative skills, which enable a series of overlapping perspectives to be brought to the text. Insofar as it is possible to appreciate the total circumstances of a mental exercise in the past, no interpretative edge should be ignored. Not all of them work, some modes of comparison are deliberately anachronistic – and not un-useful as a way of posing the essential difficulties of understanding, some are simply striking. We are hampered, or liberated, depending on your perspective, by the lack of circumstantial evidence for Grosseteste’s life and work: how and in what way are his scientific works for the liberal arts classroom, where was he teaching and whom, when were the texts written down, in what order were they created, and that mentally, physically, or orally? Retrospective reflection is what we have, and it is important to use, judiciously and carefully, all the tools available.

Our treatment of the De colore is a good example. Grosseteste’s text includes three sets of combinatrics to describe colour: two pertaining to the qualities of light (bright/dim; copious/scarce) and one to the medium (pure/impure [although this was a difficult one to render into comprehensible English since we don’t operate with a general conceptual framework of spiritual and material in the medieval Aristotelian manner]). It is reasonable to draw the implication of a three-dimensional colour space; reasonable, not strictly proven. It is stimulating todmrt4 compare this to modern conceptions of colour, which deploy three-dimensional spaces, and work with combinatrics, for example an RGB (Red, Green Blue – it did actually take me nearly a whole session to work out this is what was meant) cube. No-one would suggest that Grosseteste had an RGB cube in mind, not least because the treatise is on the nature and concept of colour, and its lucent capacity, rather than on colours and understanding of tint, hue or ‘colour’, but it provides a starting point from which to think about what is being said. There are other starting points, the Aristotelian tradition, and, most importantly, his Islamic and Jewish commentators. In collaboration a different sense of the riches offered by Grosseteste’s text becomes apparent. The sheer beauty of his mathematical scheme is better appreciated and explained by those capable of seeing, forming and rendering such beauty; the elegance of his latin, the virtuosity with which he handles new and unfamiliar knowledge, as well as sources well known to him and his contemporaries, are better brought forth by those versed in the same texts. As the work on the rainbow treatise has shown, the text in which Grosseteste revisits his own theory of colour, and uses it as an explanatory device to distinguish colours from rainbow to rainbow and within a rainbow, it is possible to find an application of the colour theory. Here again, careful and painstaking editing and translating have given a clearer understanding of the text, one of Grosseteste’s better known scientific investigations, but also opened the invitation to map the colours of the rainbow in a perceptual colour space. Taking the cue from Grosseteste, who, mutatis mutandis, makes a similar conceptual move, Hannah Smithson created the first such rendition of the family  of natural rainbows. Would this have been what Grosseteste imagined – as far as we can tell absolutely not; is it a reasonable, powerful and creative use and interpretation of his thinking – absolutely yes.

The collaboration is built on quite simple activities, which provoke very complex reflections. Sitting down together, and reading, line by line, word by word, debating and testing, waiting and reflecting, is a process which has revealed more than any single investigation. Grosseteste’s treatises are wonderfully didactic, they invite debate and discussion. That they can continue to do so at a distance of 700 years should not be so surprising. We are able to take inspiration and critical and uncritical pleasure from past musical compositions, to play them with instruments of a power, precision and clarity unachievable in the period of their first composition. We are happy with the idea of Bach as rendered through modern players, to modern ears, and with modern or period instruments, as still Bach. The same is true of the fascinating world of our 13th century guide. Of course he didn’t write a text on a multiverse; he did write an extraordinary exposition on the Aristotelian question of body, and in so doing put forth his considerable imagination, mathematical skills and wide and deep reading. For a modern cosmologist the invitation forimage003 reflection on the modern theory which emerged from our reading and from perfectly reasonable interpretations of the implications of Grosseteste’s mathematics. In so doing, the question of how the question of multiple universes was addressed in the Middle Ages (and it was) had to be considered, which has its own intricacies, but, in fact, raises an important question for how Grosseteste conceives of the notions of power and liberty of divine action. As Pasteur said, nothing is ever wasted.

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