On the Generation of Sounds in Pembroke College Oxford

The Ordered Universe team, old and new (for attendence see Giles’ previous post) were PC at nightwelcomed with open arms by Pembroke College, Oxford, last week.  Their Mahfouz Forum supported this workshop on a new text for us, the De generatione sonorum – on the generation of sounds, as well as embedded public lectures on our work on Grosseteste’s cosmology, colour and science of the rainbow from previous texts.

The College picked up on all the thematic resonances of the week – with even rainbow-hued floodlighting of the hall at night!

Grosseteste’s big picture emerged, as it had before, only through the detailed word-by-word collaborative reading of the beautiful text.  And as before, the textual transmission to the collection of rather late manuscipts that we had to hand gave us familiar puzzles: “given that this sentence is plainly nonsense in its scribally-copied form, what can we say about what the original text might have been?” And again, our collaboration gave us clues.  It is often the most technically complex sections that become most corrupted – but by that measure, a grasp of the scientific content of the text can be most helpful.

Robert, the great physical unifyer, identifies the generative causes of different sounds with different motions.  He impressively grasps the way that materials support vibrational motions of many different kinds and patterns, and are able to transmit them through themselves, and through the air, until the ear and the soul perceive them.  Here’s a sample:

Et cum tremunt partes sonativi movent aërem sibi contiguum ad similitudinem sui motus et pervenit usque ad aërem sibi connaturalem in auribus aedificatum et fit passio corporis non latens animam et fit sensus auditus.

And when these parts of the sonativum vibrate, they move the air with which they are in contact to move according to their movement, and thus [the vibration] reaches the air of the same nature built up in the ear, and a passion of the body that is not hidden from the soul is created, and the sensation of hearing is generated.

We had wonderful fun unpicking his classification of simple and combined motions – in a line, in a circle, dilation and constriction, then the combination of circular motion on a line, dilational motion on a line (think of making a “V” from the point to the extremities) and a circle, circular motion on circular motion (think epicycles) …. To aid us in our geometrical-acoustic thinking, various members had brought along demonstrations.  The “oooo- aahhh” prize goes to  Clive Siviour and his Chladni plate, here with his ‘cello bow assisted in finding the right vibrational mode of the plate by our local host and project co-leader Hannah Smithson


The most beautiful thing that ever (to my mind) happens in Ordered Universe workshops happened again!  One of our editions (Bauer) had an incomprehensible sentence about a “motion in a pyramid” that we wrestled with for some time, as it was supposed to be generated by the motion of a “circle on a line”.  Furthermore, one “big picture” realisation was that Robert was trying to explain all five vowel sounds by five different motions – yet the “E” alone was missing from the text.  A suggestion from our chief translator Sigbjørn Sønnesyn that the pyramid phrase looked like an insertion from a confused copyist, a recommendation to think about the circle-in-circle constructions of Al Tusi by our Lebanese visitor Nader el-Bisri, and the realisation from a kinetic analysis on the whiteboard that “Circle on a Line” motion could, with the correct periods and relative sizes of line and circle, produce a beautiful curly “E”, made us deeply suspicious that this was the original content of the treatise at this point.  If only we had access to the old Prague manuscript that Sig had not yet had the opportunity to visit….

…. then over lunch, he and  Giles Gasper realised that they had received a facsimile of the Prague De generatione in the package the thoughtful library had sent during our examination of the De iride … so we all looked …. and there was the “E” – In (curlier form) beautifully formed and completing the pattern. It doesnt get much better than that.

Within the workshop we  transcribed the  list of symbolic motions, simple and combined, direct from the workshop whiteboard after considerable musings and following a diagrammatic scheme introduced by Brian Tanner, and robust discussion from John Bissell, Anne Lawrence-Mathers, Allyssa Metzger and John Coleman, together with  the corresponding vowel-scheme (though some are still not so sure) we think that Robert Grosseteste identifies them with in the De generatione sonorum


More posts to follow on amazing phonetic and vocal suggestions by John Coleman and David Howard will no doubt appear, as Robert clearly also has a vision of shapes in our head corresponding with the shapes of letters and the sounds of their vowels.  We did, actually, get to the end of the text as our first pass.

Cant wait until the next one (Lincoln in the spring)

Tom McLeish

Published by tcbmcleish

I am a very badly behaved academic. I know that physics is my 'core discipline' - it's a good one and I love it - but I trespass into interdisciplinary territory all the time. Brief bio: first degree and PhD ('84) at Cambridge topped off with a short fellowship at Emmanuel College, then lectureship at Sheffield ('89-'92). I started working seriously across the chemistry-physics fence there through polymer science (and visiting the marvellous Biblical Studies group which sparked my love of ancient wisdom literature). As Professor of Physics in Leeds ('93-'08) including 5 years as an EPSRC Fellow, I began to work with biologists as well. Some theological training as part of an amglican lay reader's course in the Diocese of Ripon made me think more about how science and religion both encompass and draw on all of human culture. So it planted the seeds of the new book 'Faith and Wisdom in Science'

2 thoughts on “On the Generation of Sounds in Pembroke College Oxford

  1. Reblogged this on Bishop's Blog and commented:
    This is such exciting research, based on what at first sight might be such an unlikely subject. Love to have been there!

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