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.

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.

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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.

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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…’]

The Ordered Universe Project Returns to (one of) its Roots

I received an invitation last year to give a seminar that was impossible to turn down.  Every Wednesday afternoon the Centre for the History and Philosophy of Science at Leeds University holds a proper academic seminar – 3.15 to 5pm, giving plenty of time to expound an idea as well as have it comprehensively discussed.  I had to go – for it was in this setting, regularly taking time of from the Physics department during the years I was professor there, that I first learnt about Robert Grosseteste. Continue reading

A 13th Century Theory of Everything – Podcast

As devoted readers of the blog will recall, Brian and Giles gave a public lecture in September 2015 at the Royal Society, as part of Open House London. The talk introduced Grosseteste and the world of the medieval university, medieval experiments and what modern science might make of his concepts and understanding. From the thirteenth century to the twenty-first, you can enjoy the full lecture below.

 

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Richard Bower: Public Lecture – Comparative Cosmologies

Richard Bower’s public lecture from the last Ordered Universe workshop in Lincoln, from the Chapter House of the Cathedral is now available. All those that were there and want to revisit the lecture will now be able to, and for those who were not able to be there, this is a real treat. De luce, the Grosseteste Equations, Dark Matter and Dark Energy all compared and contrasted! Enjoy. Continue reading

Ordered Universe Presents…

IMG_559220140923_091840Ordered Universe presents the two, joint, public lectures from earlier this year at the Mahfouz Forum for Interdisciplinary Studies, Pembroke College, Oxford. After a lovely introduction from the Master, Dame Lynne Brindley, we gave two linked presentations. The first, involving Tom, Giles and Richard, ‘Forming the Body of the Cosmos: Robert Grosseteste’s ‘On Light’ focused on the team’s discussion of that treatise, its background and the challenges in rendering the making of the medieval universe. Continue reading

From Dark Ages to Dark Matter – Festival of Humanities

image001SOCIAL_MEDIA_RGB_02_500PXThe Ordered Universe is very proud and pleased to be part of the inaugural UK National Festival of the Humanitieswhich takes place between 15th-23rd November this year. The Festival aims to engage the public with innovative humanities research, and takes place across the country, with university hubs and their cultural and community partners. The programme is a true showcase for the diversity and inventiveness of research into humanities, with a fantastic array of projects, activities and opportunities to come face to face with the researchers and their subjects. Continue reading

Grosseteste’s ‘scientific’ treatises – reflecting on principles of investigation

20140719_153317IMG_5592One of the unifying themes across Grosseteste’s ‘scientific’ treatises is that he carefully observed the natural world around him and furthermore assumed that there should be a set of fundamental, universally applicable principles explaining the ordered complexity with which he was confronted. For Grosseteste creation was an act of divine generosity, an overflowing of God’s joy and goodness, and, as a product of the fount and origin of reason (as well as love, justice, joy and so forth), was itself inherently rational. Nature forms a source of knowledge about God alongside the revelation of Scripture. Continue reading

What a wonderful world – aha-moments triggered by insights into a medieval thinker’s mind

Photo0044IMG_0032In the aftermath of Ordered Universe gatherings I find myself time and again struck by how little appreciation I normally give to the complexity of the natural world. So many fundamental properties of the physical universe I usually take for granted, without even giving it a thought that someone would have some sort of explanatory account for them. Through engaging with 13th-century models of physical phenomena, some of this fascination with the fundamental properties of the world around us has been unlocked for me. Furthermore, I keep being baffled by how science – in the sense of ‘groping for understanding’, as Tom McLeish sometimes puts it – is far from a modern-day phenomenon but has been with us throughout the ages. Given my psychology and philosophy background this constitutes a steep learning curve, and has certainly enriched my understanding of the nature and history of science. Continue reading

Grosseteste goes public: disseminating medieval and modern science

IMG_2853IMG_2856The Mahfouz Forum on Grosseteste’s De generatione sonorum (On the generation of sound) culminated in a set of public lectures held in the Pichette Auditorium of Pembroke College. With this having been the third time that I got to enjoy being part of an Ordered Universe gathering, I had heard before some elements of these talks given by Tom McLeish, Giles Gasper, Hannah Smithson and Richard Bower. But far from making the experience repetitive, it has been very inspiring to see how the speakers’ approach and evaluation of the topics has been evolving and expanding. In addition, it’s rewarding to see how my own understanding of the themes has developed from when I first joined, and how some of the concepts I initially couldn’t get my head around by now seem quite familiar. Continue reading