The Ordered Universe goes to Harvard

Ordered Universe Co-I for the University of York, Tom McLeish, is lucky enough to chair the Harvard-UK Knox Fellowship Committee, which awards 2-year postgraduate fellowships to Harvard across all subjects. Once a year he gets to visit the new (and not so new) fellows at Harvard in rather more relaxed settings than their London interview.

Harvard Yard was looking rather gorgeous in its fall colours:


While in town, Tom also went to see some astronomers: the Harvard-Smithsonian Astrophysics lab holds a Thursday lunchtime bag lunch seminar where four people give short talks. The seminars are well-attended by about 100 astronomers from all over Boston.

The Harvard-Smithsonian lunchtime seminar in full swing with a talk on 21st century astrophysics, following Tom’s talk on 13th century cosmology. Note that the scientists are still there.

On this occasion one was on a rather old (c. 1224) theory of a Big Bang origin of the cosmos, contained in Robert Grosseteste’s treatise De luce (On light). For a lecture by a real cosmologist on this topic see Durham astronomer Richard Bower’s talk here. Grosseteste does an extraordinary thing in the De luce, using Aristotelian physics to counter Aristotle’s belief that the universe could have no temporal beginning. Instead, Grosseteste supposes that a point of light expands into a giant sphere, ‘the size of the world machine’, taking matter with it, until it can be rarefied no further. Following that the light, in new guise, propagates inward, forming the nested planetary spheres as it goes. It is a marvellously mathematical theory of how a medieval geocentric cosmos might have come into being, and as an example of the scientific imagination, is hard to better.

The Harvard cosmologists were fascinated to hear about some of the medieval history of their subject, and had interesting questions about the scientific community then, and the way that written records were disseminated.

Prof Owen Gingerich with Flamsteed’s star catalogue

Later that afternoon Tom had the immense privilege of visiting the one-man Harvard institution that is Professor Owen Gingerich. He owns a personal collection of early modern astronomical texts, and some earlier manuscripts as well. Here is Owen with a prized member of his collection – one of the few surviving copies of first Astronomer Royal John Flamsteed’s star catalog, edited by Edmond Halley, but most copies destroyed by Flamsteed. This, surviving, copy is heavily redacted in Flamsteed’s hand (can you make out the falsum est on the bottom corner?) !

The final astronomical joy was a meeting with leaders of the Harvard Black Hole Project, partially funded through the John Templeton Foundation, of which Tom is currently a trustee. Philosopher and historian of science Peter Galison gave Tom a signed copy of the ground-breaking short-waveradio image from the Event Horizon Telescope – capturing the monster black hole at the heart of active galaxy M87 (below).


What would Robert Grosseteste have thought about the notion of a Black Hole?

Line of Duty: Reflections from Lincoln

Lines, angles, and shapes in the roof of Lincoln Cathedral

Why is the natural world saturated with constant movement, and how do we make sense of this perpetual fluctuation of material things? What principles and methods are most suited to find order and coherence in this ever-changing world? From May 13th to 16th, the Ordered Universe gathered at Bishop Grosseteste University in Lincoln to read, analyse, and debate Robert Grosseteste’s answers to these questions in a series of texts. The scope of these texts ranges from the geometrical and optical principles of natural causality in the twinned treatises On Lines, Angles, and Shapes and On the Nature of Places, via the labyrinthine search for the unifying causal factor in bodily movement in On Bodily Movement and On Light, to the condensed metaphysics of On the Movement of Supercelestial Bodies. If the principles of heavenly movement remained obscure, the clear skies allowed the rays of the sun full freedom to give leafy Lincoln a summery sparkle. The staff and amenities at Bishop Grosseteste University were as welcoming as the weather, and provided ideal surroundings for activity and movement as well as for rest.

As always, our twofold task was to beat draft translations into shape and figure out what arguments the sometimes highly obscure Latin texts were meant to establish. We were fortunate to have in our midst scholars from a range of discipline corresponding to the breadth of Grosseteste’s interests and talents. BGU did not only contribute hospitality but also scholarship, in the form of Dr Jack Cunningham and his PhD students Ros Gammie and Adam Foxon at the theology department at BGU, and Dr Gioacchino Curiello, who is a British Academy Post-Doc at the same department. Gioacchino also brought some welcome variation into our work schedule through presenting his ongoing research on Grosseteste’s translations of and commentaries on the Pseudo-Dionysian corpus of texts, and how these can be linked to his pastoral care as Bishop of Lincoln.

V1frCU+MSD6TfHlrChh0Aw_thumb_c9e2The texts we worked on this time draw heavily on geometry and optics to explain natural phenomena and natural causation. Professors Tom McLeish from York and Brian Tanner from Durham produced extremely helpful diagrams of the reasoning implicit and explicit in the texts, and Oxford Vision Scientists Professor Hannah Smithson and Dr Rebekah White brought clarity and focus to our reading by refracting Grosseteste’s opaque words through the lenses of their expertise. Professor Clive Siviour and Joshua Harvey, also of Oxford, showed how useful their training in Engineering and, in Josh’s case, Experimental Psychology, is for elucidating medieval texts with precision.

2sreRYt1TJGWO41egFjr+Q_thumb_c9e8Professor Cecilia Panti (Rome, Tor Vergata) had produced wonderful new editions of On Lines, Angles, and Shapes and On the Nature of Places, and Dr Neil Lewis’s (Georgetown) translation of On the Movement of Supercelestial Bodies was based on Cecilia’s already published edition of that work. We also revisited Neil’s meticulous edition and translation of On Bodily Movement and On Light, which continues to fascinate and puzzle us. Since these texts draw heavily on other medieval works, we were delighted to welcome back Dr Nicola Polloni (Berlin) and Dr Seb Falk (HPS, Cambridge), who made essential contributions from their expertise, respectively, in medieval philosophy and medieval science. Dr Sarah Gilbert, who recently completed her PhD in History at Durham, had helped organise the workshop and added her valuable Latin skills to her administrative contributions. We were also joined by Karen Monid of The Projection Studio. Karen and Ross have used Grosseteste’s texts as inspiration for their wonderful projection shows, using the movement of light and of sound to make the most profoundly moving projection shows.  We are very much looking forward to seeing what this creative team will do next!

UTAYnaCbR5mSU014QdBASA_thumb_ca084lr5T4I6QoKpCSRUIb1RdQ_thumb_ca02Grosseteste assumed as axiomatic that a unitary effect must have a unitary cause and origin. The union of these disciplines in a unitary debate, while dependent on all participants, can be traced back to the unifying leadership of Professor Giles Gasper (Durham), who once again managed to make numerous disparate impulses and energies pull in the same direction. Giles also gave a public lecture, together with Sig Sønnesyn (Durham) and Cecilia Panti, with the title ‘Creation and the World Machine: 13th Century Science and Theology’. In this lecture, Giles framed Grosseteste’s life and work within the overarching theme of creation theology and natural science. Sig gave a case study of this from the perspective of the short treatise On the Six Differentiae, and Cecilia presented her recent edition of a text, quite possibly and plausibly authored by Grosseteste, on the importance of astronomical time-keeping for the art of medicine and healing.

One of the central lessons of Grosseteste’s geometrical account of natural causality is that while a single rectilinear influence from cause to effect can be effective, the effect is many times stronger when several such lines converge on the same point to concentrate their efforts. This workshop, converging on Grosseteste’s episcopal seat and final resting place, has reminded us how this is applicable, with the necessary modifications, to scholarship as well. By coming together to concentrate our efforts towards a shared goal, we were able to produce effects that none of us would have been capable of on our own. Grosseteste would not have been surprised at this, convinced as he was that nature is the best guide for art and academic pursuits.

The Ordered Universe of UBC, Vancouver

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. medbigbangvancouver

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.

St John’s Graduate College, UBC

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.

Grosseteste’s rainbow co-ordinates mapped onto perceptual colour plane by H. Smithson


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.

FaWis_450Perhaps 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…’]

Ordered Universe Symposium: The Appliance of Science: Astronomy and the Calendar

The next in the Ordered Universe Symposium series takes place in April, 5th-8th, in Rome. Co-sponsored by the Università di Roma Tor Vergata, and hosted in the University of Notre Dame du Lac, Rome Global Gateway, the symposium will focus on Grussetestes’s treatise De spheraOn the Sphere and his treatise on time-reckoning and the calendar the Compotus correctorius. The programme is embedded below, and includes details of a half-day conference at Tor Vergata, on Wednesday 6th April (with papers by Richard Bower, Anne Lawrence Mathers, Philipp Nothaft and Neil Lewis) and the Symposium Public Lecture to be delivered on Thursday 7th April at the Notre Dame Global Gateway (Via Ostilia 15) at 18.00 by Tom McLeish and Cecilia Panti. Any inquires should be directed to The symposium will include regular Ordered Universe participants and some for whom this is their first time: we look forward to three days of interdisciplinary engagement and exploration. Time, space, stars, planets, zodiac and the relationship of the earth to the cosmos, of humanity to creation, are some amongst the topics and questions which Grosseteste opens and to which he addresses his treatises.

Images courtesy of wiki commons and Giles Gasper.

Clarifications on Medieval Multiverses and Multidisciplinarity

IMG_0032The recent interest in the Ordered Universe project following summary articles, in Nature, TheConversationUK, The Economist, The New Statesman, and various republished versions of the above, has been very gratifying (in the most part) but has also made it clear that some clarification is needed on both the way the project works, and on what we are saying.  Continue reading

Do we live in a universe at all: some thoughts from Mark Robson

John of Sacrobosco's De Sphera
John of Sacrobosco’s De sphera of about 1230, John ‘Holywood’ was an almost direct contemporary of Grosseteste c.1195-c.1256

The Durham Grosseteste Project involves looking at the works of Bishop Grosseteste and trying to understand his ideas in the light of theIMG_1932 conceptual background of an ordered universe. Grosseteste understood himself to be playing a role in a divinely ordered hierarchy of creatures. He was within a Grand Plan, a teleologically ordered whole whose aim was to glorify God and to reflect or even image some of God’s glory. To Grosseteste balance and beauty were expected since they reflected the harmony and beauty of God. He looked at light as the primeaval creation, the first stroke of God’s brush as he expressed His Glory. Continue reading