Friday last saw the Ordered Universe project hosted at a very civilised Dinner-and-Lecture evening at St. Johns College, University of British Columbia, in Vancouver.
Tom McLeish, Co-investigator of the project had been in the Vancouver area all week on a lecture tour organised by the Canadian Science and Christian Affiliation (CSCA). After four events based around his book Faith and Wisdom in Science, as well as several science seminars (in Simon Fraser University and UBC itself), this last event, as all others organised by long-suffering and ever-kind host Gordon Carkner, focussed in on the unique collaboration of humanities scholars and scientists digging deeply together into the natural philosophy of Robert Grosseteste.
A Medieval Big-Bang Theory: An Interdisciplinary Tale, began with a personal story about Tom’s first encounter with Grosseteste, from Jim Ginther’s regular HPS seminars at Leeds in the 1990s, then his astonished reading of the treatise on light, the De luce, the summer before his move to Durham in 2008, where he met up with medieval historian and theologian (now project PI) Giles Gasper. The seminar then covered the technical content of Grosseteste’s light-expanded cosmos, and the corollary of his material physics of light – the theory of colour in the De colore and the De iride (on the rainbow). The invited audience of students, faculty and members of CSCA had enthusiastically reserved 2 hours for the event (!), so it was possible to go into some detail on the delicate interplay of scientific analysis, textual and philosophical work.
As ever, the participants were surprised and delighted to hear about the new science that the project has produced, as well as its insights and scientific commentary on 13th century treatises. Tom managed to fit in both the three-dimensional mathematical structure of the colour space Grosseteste constructs in the De colore, and the new ‘rainbow mapping’ of colour space that this, accompanied by work on his De iride inspired, later published in the Journal of the Optical Society of America.
Perhaps the most satisfying aspect of the context of this event, however, was the invitation from the hosts to situate the project findings in the twin theological contexts of Grosseteste’s day and ours. Our medieval polymath tends to stick to science in his science texts, but from other important works such as the Hexameron, and the Commentary on the Posterior Analytics, we know that he has a developed theological purpose for studying nature to the end of understanding it. He sees the process of induction from our sense data and intellect as a long and slow process of reawakening that insight and close relationship with nature that humankind was created to have in the first place, but lost through the turning away from its Creator in the Fall. At this point the medieval science work dovetails into the thesis Tom has been developing in Faith and Wisdom in Science (click though for book and blog) for a healthier modern narrative for science. The idea of science as the means to a healed relationship with nature strikes important late modern chords, as well as resonating with the philosophy of earlier ages. It’s an old story of purpose that we have forgotten and need to remember.
Questions were very rich and varied – including one that the questioner would have liked to pose to Grosseteste himself: ‘Why did God allow the perfection of the spheres to stop at the Moon, and not complete all the way through the cosmos?‘ Our Oxford Master was fond of alternative histories – he tackled the question of whether there would have been an incarnation without a Fall, after all. But what would he have made of a universe of crystalline spheres ‘all the way down’ (which is precisely what one of Prof. Richard Bower’s early simulations of his cosmogenesis physics in the De luce produced!). To be discussed…[Giles says: ‘Perfectness can’t re-create perfectness, otherwise it wouldn’t be perfect…’]