The Ordered Universe public workshop on Grosseteste’s scientific works, was a great success: part of the Being Human Festival, and with the aim of introducing the public to the work of the team on Grosseteste, why and how we do it, and the excitement provoked by the project. With a full house, some 60 participants, across a wide range of experience and background, and almost the full team (myself, Tom, Hannah, Richard Bower, Brian Tanner, Mike Huxtable, Sigbjørn and John Bissell), we started the day in the magnificent setting of the Durham Cathedral Chapter House. Canon Rosalind Brown opened the event on behalf of the Cathedral, followed by remarks from our conference chair and public lecturer, Dr Michael Brooks. Tom, Giles and Hannah then took the group through a tour of Grosseteste’s background, including, within the science and history of science, a note of his probable visit to Durham, in the company of his closest friend and companion, Adam Marsh.
We processed after this to the surroundings of Prior’s Hall for two interactive sessions, the first in four groups, reading extracts from Grosseteste’s treatises: On Colour, On the Rainbow, On Light and On the Generation of Sounds. Each group focused on a different treatise, two on that on light, and we all read sections on the rainbow. The reading was a wonderful experience; team members divided amongst the groups, and all were very impressed with the level of questions, and the positive reaction to collaborative reading. The detail, intricacy and coherence of Grosseteste’s thought emerges far more viscerally in this process – much better than simply taking the word from a lecture! In several cases new readings from the text emerged, and for our new edition, transition and commentary on the Generation of Sounds we’ll be extending the footnotes to include Festival of Humanities participants! The feedback from the day showed how much people had valued the experience, of coming to grips with the 13th century texts, and tracing the development of Grosseteste’s thought, and enjoying the challenge.
After lunch we reconvened at Prior’s Hall, for a third session, ably and energetically lead by Brian Tanner, with hot-lips mirrors, cups, pennies, glass-blocks, protractors and rulers, dedicated to carrying out some of the experiments Grosseteste describes in the treatises we have examined. For example, how the experiment to demonstrate refraction works, where having placed a penny in a cup, the observer moves their line of sight to the point at which the penny disappears from view. Add water and the money re-appears: and it raises gasps of surprise every time. Once again this proved a very popular part of the day, and another element to reinforce the accessibility and logic to Grosseteste’s thought. The nature of experiment, the extent to which in the medieval sense an internal experience in the experimenter goes alongside external action, prompted a lively debate as well.
Our final session of the day, took us back to the Chapter House, for an exploration of the medieval cosmos, Richard Bower leading with his work on the treatise On light and how to model mathematically the formation of the spheres of the universe that Grosseteste describes. We then showed, for the first time in public, the 2D pilot version of the visualisation, which we has been in development under Nick Holliman’s direction at the University of York Department for Interactive Media. We are very pleased with the results: the voiceover was generously provided by Sir Thomas Allen (also Chancellor of Durham University), and we plan to take the story further as our investigations of the Grosseteste’s scientific world deepen. We’ll have more on the film and the process of making it, but for now, it is available to view and we’d be very glad of comments and thoughts (constructively!).
Our day came to a close, with a general question and answer session, and a summation by Michael Brooks. The AHRC very kindly filmed the day for us, so we’ll have that ready and up as soon as we have it, alongside our own memories of the day, and those of the participants. It was a day that reminded us of the two especial qualities that this project requires and on which it runs: humility – in the face of older knowledge, modern disciplinary boundaries, and the breadth of experience possessed by all who come to the texts, specialists or for the first time; and listening – you have to listen to the texts, to the commentary and to reactions of those around to build up a fuller and richer sense of the text, the author, and the resonance of his thought. So, thanks from the whole team to the participants, to the magnificent graduate students who helped (Devin, Jon, Jane, Roz, Steph and Gabriel), for a wonderfully stimulating day which took the project into new directions. The weather even obliged us with a beautiful rainbow over and across Palace Green!