OxNet Seminar 1 – Physics

We’ve kicked off this year’s OxNet Ordered Universe seminar series with a session on Physics run by Emeritus Professor Brian Tanner, Durham University. Some of our students have shared their reflections on the topic:

“Professor Tanner’s seminar was on the subject of physics in the medieval period. Beforehand we were given information to read through about lenses, with information on the lens equation, how light is refracted and bent as it passes through different types of lenses and how the focal length affects where an image will be displayed. In the Middle Ages, ideas about refraction mainly came from the old teachings of Ptolemy and Grosseteste, and we discussed how water affects rays of light. Of interest in the seminar was of how Ptolemy and Grosseteste may have constructed experiments scientifically accepted in today’s world, which before the seminar I was led to believe were first conducted by Galileo. Another intriguing idea was of the matter of the first practical uses of lenses. To display objects in clarity, a lenses were a solution to the deterioration of eyesight. The invention of spectacles cannot be exactly pin pointed but is likely from 13th century Italy. In addition, another practical use of lenses was to see the stars, or at first to enlarge a view in the distance. The invention of the telescope seems to be from a Dutch man but, there was evidence of other telescope-like instruments having been invented before, for example the Elizabethan telescope.

All in all, I found learning of the ideas of physics from the Middle Ages fascinating. At first, I was led to believe the Middle Ages were shrouded in darkness for science and that no advancements were made in respective fields. But I find now that such fascinating people, like Grosseteste, still imagined and contemplated the laws of nature and that humans’ innate curiosity continued through this interesting period. Perhaps what is more intriguing is how we can use the ideas of the work of Grosseteste and many alike to explain phenomenon today or perhaps to see the world from a different perspective and approach questions in science in a different forgotten light.”

Oliver Hennessey, Oldham Sixth Form College

“Professor Tanner took us along the chronology of optics, a chronology in which one might lose sight of Robert Grosseteste; his theory of refraction is easily eclipsed by that of the older Ibn-Sahl. However, a focus on his approach proves far more fruitful. Grosseteste approached optics as a scientist. As emphasised by Professor Tanner, Grosseteste did not see a capricious world; he believed in an ordered universe, unified by laws he sought via experimentation and observation. His observations he explained with mathematics as illustrated by his reliance upon geometry. This resulted in a deeper, broader exploration of natural phenomena. Grosseteste is remarkable for his profound thinking: a blend of rigorous logic and channelled creativity.”
Thady Fox, Cardinal Vaughan Memorial School

“Professor Tanner discussed the approach that scientists from the middle ages took to solve some of the major physics problems at the time. Many of these problems involved optics, using Euclid’s work on reflection and Grosseteste’s findings on refraction. The seminar also introduced issues that the physicists of the middle ages had to contend with due to their lack of technology and complete understanding of physics as we see it today. This was explained through the interesting topic of Witelo’s forged data on the ratios of refraction in water and air.  It was valuable to have the thought processes of the early physicists explained to me as it allows for the exploration of their beliefs, both religious and scientific. This will be very important as it provides context to the scientific and religious knowledge around Grosseteste’s time.”
Robert Doherty, Ashton Sixth Form College

“I found Professor Tanner’s Physics seminar very interesting, and helpful in gaining an extended understanding of the things I am learning about in A level physics. It was great to look further into refraction and reflection and apply them to more unusual situations than in an exam, for example the experiment with the coin in a cup. We learned some of the history of both telescopes and glasses/spectacles, which I enjoyed as it combined physics and history, and was something I’d never previously looked into. It was fascinating to look back on multiple people creating similar things in completely different parts of the world, and the fact that their inventions were so close to what we know today, perhaps more advanced than I would have ever expected from the Early Modern period.”

Amy Wilkinson, Byron Sixth Form

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