25th – 28th November 2015, Durham, UK. A group of around 25 people gather for another symposium on the scientific writings of the 13th century English bishop Robert Grosseteste. It’s the first symposium under the umbrella of the generous AHRC grant that started in October. Whilst most academic conferences bring together experts from more or less the same subject area, this symposium is different. Its attendants span the academic disciplines from medieval history to modern vision science, from Middle English to computational cosmology, from church history to physics and applied mathematics, and from linguistics and acoustics to music composition. Diversity applies not only to academic but also to cultural backgrounds, as people from the UK are joined by colleagues from Italy, Norway, Ireland, Germany, and from Lebanon and the USA. The Ordered Universe Project celebrates this diversity, and this was also evident from the symposium programme. In addition to the collaborative reading sessions, there was a tour of the super computer at the Durham Institute for Computational Cosmology, an exhibition from the Durham Cathedral Priory Library Collection, illustrations of phonetic frequencies and vocal tract shapes as well as a modern music lecture performance inspired by Grosseteste’s writings. One might wonder where in all this diversity lies the unifying interest that makes such a heterogeneous group of people gather around the same table for a three-day intense discussion. What exactly is the common denominator that they are all interested in and that they all have something to which contribute?
I think the answer, or at least parts of it, lie within the way Robert Grosseteste approached the natural world around him. He was deeply fascinated by the universe his God had created, and he sought to uncover the principles and structures underlying the phenomena he could observe. He was driven by a desire to work out what was going on below the surface of how the natural world presented itself to him. This mindset has curiosity and inquisitiveness at heart, dissatisfaction with ignorance, and longing for understanding. There is also the fundamental belief that there’s an underlying unifying structure, which might be hidden from our sensory organs but which can be deduced through careful observation and reasoning. There’re also elements of awe and respect for God’s creation, and the conviction that it’s a worthwhile activity to invest thought into construing models of the structure that upholds it.
In the Ordered Universe Project, humanities scholars and modern scientists alike are fascinated by this Grossetestian mindset of eagerness for understanding. From whichever discipline one considers his thinking, one cannot help but be impressed by his unquenchable thirst to have an explanation for fundamental phenomena of the natural world. It seems to me that the deep-seated desire to push the boundaries of our knowledge is, or should be, part of what makes people work in academia, both in the humanities and the natural sciences. From this perspective, it is only natural that the Grossetestian mind is now attracting academics from across the disciplines: they all find they have something in common with him, something like the desire for understanding, or the thirst for knowledge.
Besides his inquisitiveness, Grosseteste must be admired for the clarity and sophistication in both his reasoning and writing. Admittedly, when we first look at a new treatise, there tends to be an initial period in which his writing sometimes seems very obscure, rather ill-thought-through and like unintelligible gibberish. However, when we engage with the text, slowly but surely its depth and ingenuity reveal themselves to us. Importantly, initial problems do not arise because Grosseteste was careless or imprecise in his choice of words. Rather, we struggle with his providing accurate descriptions in language that are only really intelligible to modern day readers if presented in geometrical diagrams. As demonstrated for instance in the Project’s work on the De colore and also in the numerous diagrams drawn in each session, the precision in Grosseteste’s linguistic descriptions allows for their translation into visual modes of representation that are more accessible to us. This ‘translated’ form reveals more of the complexity and sophistication of Grosseteste’s models. When one then goes back to the text, what at the beginning seemed unintelligible and confused, now in most parts presents itself as clear, clever and complex. Given that academia is not only about the generation of knowledge but also about its transmission, clear and concise communication of abstract and complex thoughts is an art for which everyone in academia should strive. For both humanities scholars and natural scientists, Grosseteste is a role model for abstract thinking combined with precision in writing, and not least for this reason it is a pleasure to engage with his scientific treatises for people from across the disciplines.
A third attitude that unites those involved in the Ordered Universe Project is their willingness to question the assumptions through which we conceptualise our experiences. Through engagement with Grosseteste’s texts, one is presented with a thinker who wanted to further his understanding, just like we do, but who had utterly different assumptions about the world and operated within an entirely different knowledge framework. One of his fundamental assumptions that is not unanimously accepted anymore today would be that the Creator God put in place a world that is good and ordered. Starting from this assumption, he drew on very different reasons for the phenomena he observed than a modern day thinker would. However, the enriching element in grappling with medieval scientific theories is not a feeling of smugness about how far we have progressed, but the exercise of humility, knowing that those after us will look back on our models much like we consider Grosseteste’s work today. I find it fascinating to see how Grosseteste’s axiomatic beliefs, for example his belief in a Creator God and in his creation’s being good and ordered although disordered by sin, penetrate his models. It’s good to keep in mind that we also have such fundamental assumptions that deeply influence how we conceptualise things. Most of the time, though, we aren’t even aware of what these assumptions are; they’re so deep-seated that one normally never comes to questioning them. Generations after us will probably have a clearer view on what these axioms of ours were – just as we can see how Grosseteste’s axioms shaped the starting points of his thinking. Especially for the scientists, engagement with Grosseteste’s scientific models sharpens their awareness that however sophisticated scientific models might have become, they might still be constrained or biased by assumptions so deeply entrenched in our contemporary world view that we cannot even detect their influence.
Taken together, it seems to me that despite coming from diverging disciplines, the members of the Ordered Universe Project have quite a lot in common in how they approach the world and in their attitudes to knowledge generation and transmission. They all have inquisitive minds and are fascinated by the physical universe and by human attempts to explain it. They all feel drawn in by Grosseteste’s abstract yet clear and concise way of thinking and writing, and they are aware that appreciation for our predecessors can fruitfully enrich how we conceptualise the world today. Sometimes I have the impression that these core values are put into relief through the Project not despite the diversity of disciplines represented but precisely because of it. In order to be able to work together, the members of the Project had to find common ground to start from. As this couldn’t be their respective areas of expertise, this ground was found in the more fundamental level of rock-bottom attitudes to how one conceptualises the world and our place in it.