Back to the roots

During the most recent of the Ordered Universe Symposia, medieval specialists and modern scientists applied their minds to Robert Grosseteste’s De sphera (On the sphere). In this early treatise of his, Grosseteste describes the movements of the heavenly bodies in the firmament according to the observer’s position on earth. The astronomical knowledge available during the supposedly so dark Middle Ages is of impressive accuracy and detail, and Richard Bower from the Institute of computational cosmology at Durham University commented that he might give out this medieval treatise as lecture notes for the first year introductory astronomy course.

During the work on the De sphera, it became apparent that visual demonstrations of the heavenly movements would much help the lay reader’s understanding of treatise. Tom McLeish, one of the founding members of the Ordered Universe Project, noted that when he was a child, planetarium shows would illustrate to children and grown-ups those regularities in the sky that Grosseteste talks about in the De sphera. In recent years, however, many planetaria have closed, or their programmes have become dominated by supposedly more attractive laser shows. The excellent work of the British Association of Planetaria is doing something to redress this. A further significant issue is that of light pollution which precludes simply looking into the night sky to observe the constellations of the heavens. The result is that in our times, people rarely come in contact with what has maybe been most central to natural world interests throughout human history, namely the order of the universe as we see it in the night sky.

The points made link in with one of the general themes that to my mind represent one of the defining features of the Ordered Universe Project. This is that time and again, Grosseteste’s treatises have made me discover aspects of the world that are, when one comes to think about them, mind-blowingly fascinating – and yet I had never really given them any thought before I encountered Grosseteste’s writings. Today’s world is marked by information overload, and many people have lost a fundamental form of inquisitiveness in the way they process the world they live in. Through being allowed to be part of the Ordered Universe Project, I’ve learned to marvel about colour, rainbows, light, sound, language, and the movements of the stars and planets. I’ve learned to be in awe of these features of the natural world that otherwise I would have probably remained pretty much oblivious about.  I’m convinced that the observations and ways of thinking encouraged by the Ordered Universe Project can bring us back to allowing ourselves to experience the order and beauty of the universe we live in. Ultimately, we don’t need laser shows to enrich our lives, the natural world itself is already exciting and fascinating enough – we just have to look at it through the eyes of a medieval mind.

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