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?

Medieval and Modern Tides – Light Up Poole Festival 2019

Last weekend, on Saturday February 23rd, Ordered Universe members Brian Tanner and Giles Gasper took part in the Light Up Poole Festival, on the UK’s south coast, in Dorset. We gave a talk to the public on the scientific works of Robert Grosseteste, in Continue reading

Horizon at Light Up Poole

Fresh from the Napa Lighted Art Festival, the projection show Horizon, created by The Projection Studio – Ross Ashton and Karen Monid, in collaboration with the Ordered Universe, and in consultation with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, will play at the upcoming Light Up Poole Festival. Running from 21-23 February Light Up Poole features Continue reading

Napa Lighted Art Festival – Final Activities

Our final day at the Napa Lighted Festival was 19th January, featuring two talks by Dr Henrike Lange (University of California Berkeley) and Joshua Harvey (Oxford), in a session entitled Beyond the Material, in the First Presbyterian Church. Joshua’s work on material perception, and the quality of lustre in particular, sat engagingly alongside Henrike’s exploration of renaissance art and the manipulative devices used by artists. Continue reading

Napa Lighted Art Festival – Colour, Perception, the Avant Garde and more

A second set of talks, and memories from the Napa Lighted Festival last month. Friday 18th January saw a first talk from multi-media sculptor Alexandra Carr, a frequent collaborator with the Ordered Universe, and Joshua Harvey (Psychology and Engineering Science, University of Oxford). In Beyond Colour Alexandra and Josh spoke on various Continue reading

Dublin Symposium – Light, Motion, Bodies, and Comets

Last week Ordered Universe members gathered in Dublin, hosted by Laura Cleaver and Karl Kinsella at Trinity College and Marsh’s Library. With our usual range of disciplines represented (philosophy, history, psychology, engineering, physics, creative arts, history of art), and with colleagues from Europe and the USA, we set to work on the four treatises for collaborative reading. Two days in Trinity, at the Long Room Hub, saw the group read through the middle third of Grosseteste’s treatise On the Supercelestial Motions. This challenging treatise deals with the question how the planets move, whether by external force, their nature, and what the effects of their movements are. We also read through, for the second time, On Bodily Motion and Light. Another complex piece of writing, the treatise focuses again on how bodies move, with a more consistent parallel with animal bodies, and exploration of medical material. This treatise ends with a startling passage on light as prime form; highly reminiscent of the treatise On LightContinue reading

And so to Dublin…

With less than a week to go before the next Ordered Universe symposium we have been making all of our preparations, including the full programme above. The four treatises for discussion are all in good shape, and we’re looking forward, as always, to the intensive reading process. To accompany our deliberations we have some shorter talks, by Professor Brian Tanner on the physics of light (just a small area of science!), and talks by Dr Cate Watkinson, Rosie Reed-Gold and Alexandra Carr, on their artistic engagement with the project. Our public lecture takes place on Tuesday 18th. The texts all concern light and motion, in their various ways, and reveal the amazing capacity of Grosseteste’s mind. We’ll keep you updated on our progress!

Light Fantasic! Ordered Universe at Trinity College Dublin

After our summer breaks, Ordered Universe members will be convening for our next symposium. This time we are hosted by Laura Claver at Trinity College Dublin. We’re very much looking forward to being in Ireland, and have a full schedule of texts to examine. Meeting between 17th and 20th September, we’ll be looking at Grosseteste’s treatises On Light (familiar to many!), a final reading of On Comets, and second readings Continue reading

The Uncertainty Principle – The Ordered Universe at Pembroke College Access Week 2018

A guest post by Thomas Henderson, 2nd year history undergraduate at Durham University, who has spent this week as an undergrad mentor and tutor at the summer school

A view of Chapel Quad, Pembroke College

After a year’s programme of seminars and a residential Easter school in Durham, the OxNet-Ordered Universe access scheme has reached its climax with this week’s residential summer school at Pembroke College, Oxford. The sixth-formers from Sunderland have joined with others from OxNet schemes in Manchester, Cheshire and London, as well as students from rural India supported by the Karta Institute, for a programme of seminars, lectures and tutorials aimed to provide an insight into the realities of university study.
The entire summer school was kicked off on Sunday evening by Dr Peter Claus, Pembroke’s Access Fellow, and Dr Sigbjørn Sønnesyn, who introduced the themes of the school’s title: ‘Through a Glass Darkly’. His diverting lecture urged the students to embrace the limitations of human knowledge, and its attendant feelings of uncertainty and confusion, as the precursors of investigation and exploration. Taking its cue from the Ordered Universe project, the school is designed to challenge the way the students conceptualise knowledge, and to encourage them to think in a way unbounded by A-level mark-schemes or conventional divisions between disciplines.

At this half-way point, it is clear that the sixth-formers have taken these words to heart. Their eager inquiries about the realities of university life and applications (making the most of their undergraduate mentors) have been matched by affirmations of their intentions to apply to elite universities. A visit from journalists from the BBC Look North served to focus them further. In their academic work, they have been just as engaged and stimulating.

Ordered Universe students working on their group poster, to be presented on Friday afternoon

The Ordered Universe strand is focused on colour, light and rainbows. Work on these topics has included two of the project’s signature collaborative reading sessions, of De iride and De luce, led by Sig Sønnesyn, and a workshop on the science of rainbows with Joshua Harvey. These sessions have seen students enthusiastically discussing and disagreeing with each other over (among other things) the nature of rainbows, the problems of perception and whether a sunrise can exist without somebody to observe it. We look forward to what they will produce come Friday!

Astronomy across the Medieval World

An extremely interesting conference organised by the Centre for the History and Philosophy of Physics, based at St Cross College, University of Oxford, ‘Astronomy across the Medieval World‘ introduced Chinese, Indian, Islamic, European and Mayan and Aztec  astronomy to a wide and diverse audience. The first session of the conference was chaired by Professor Charles Burnett (London), and opened by Dr Giles Gasper (Durham), with an outline of European astronomy, its inheritances, exploring in particular Robert Grosseteste’s treatises On the Sphere, On Comets, On Light and On the Liberal Arts. Professor Christopher Cullen (Cambridge) followed with China and its astronomical systems, meridian measurements, state-sponsored observatories, and belief in a spherical heaven, but flat earth. The links between Chinese and Islamic  (or Islamicate) astronomy were also fascinting. Dr Josep Casulleras (Barcelona) completed the morning with a fuller treatment of Islamic astronomy, its inheritances, especially Ptolemy, particular developments and influences. The importance of medieval Islamic astronomy to the scientific revolution was stressed especially.

The afternoon featured two papers, chaired by Professor Silke Ackerman, the first of which, given by Professor Ivan Šprajc (Slovenian Academy of Sciences and Arts) opened up the subject of pre-Hispanic Mezzo-America. Mayan and Aztec astronomy, its calendar of 365 and 260 days, and the place of star-lore within mezzo-American society were explored in detail, and offered a very interesting parallel with the Eurasian examples from the morning. The final paper of the day came from Dr Benno van Dalen (Bavarian Academy of Sciences and Humanities), who took the case of Ptolemy, tracing the his influence across the Islamic tradition, the European, and the Indian, ending at the court of the Mughal Jai Singh in the early eighteenth century. The proceedings of the day were summarised expertly by Professor Emilie Savage-Smith (Oxford) who emphasised the similarities as well as the differences between the societies presented and their cultures of astronomy. The similarities across the medieval period, the presence of networks of scholar and diffusion of texts across cultural and linguistic boundaries were perhaps the most striking elements of the day.

Organised by Dr Joanna Ashbourn, and taking place in the Department of Physics, the conference attracted some 150 people, with lively question sessions after each talk. All of which made for a stimulating and challenging day, and a very successful one.