Let's Get Physical

Seminar 2 saw students exploring Physics with Brian Tanner, Emeritus Professor of Physics at Durham University. Brian introduced the students to the notion of collaborative reading, looking through Robert Grosseteste’s treatise ‘On the Rainbow’. They read about his various experiments, including looking at light refracting through a urine flask, which they replicated using a vase and a mobile phone torch.

Two students then volunteered to take part in an image-formation experiment. They carefully observed a coin’s supposed change of position as water was poured into a vessel, demonstrating refraction at water-air interface. Students used these experiments to evaluate the extent to which Grosseteste was accurate in his theories about the laws of refraction, and were surprised to know how close he was to modern scientific understanding, along with key thinkers like Roger Bacon.

The seminar ended on a discussion about spectacles – when were they invented? Who invented them? Was it Roger Bacon’s experiment on slicing a sphere which created a lens? Or the Arab invention of a ‘reading stone’? Despite numerous paintings of scholars wearing spectacles, the evidence is still inconclusive, as artists may have superimposed them onto the figures to make them look scholarly. 

How (theoretical) physics was born in Hereford…

A wonderful day at Hereford today exploring the life and times of Robert Grosseteste, particularly the years he spent in the city, and his thought on natural phenomena, with excellent questions and involvement from the audience. Brian Tanner, Giles Gasper (from Durham), and David Thomson (now a Herefordian), presented the workshop, which formed part of the Hereford Cathedral Life and Learning programme. In the elegant surroundings of College Hall we showed our Medieval Cosmos film as an introduction to the rather different ways in which the Continue reading

Music of the Spheres

Students launched into the seminar series by exploring the cosmos with Richard Bower, and comparing medieval and modern views on the universe. They considered questions of how it was created – was it designed by a ‘craftsman’ or did it always exist – and compared the theories of thinkers like Plato and Aristotle, and how Robert Grosseteste’s theory of celestial bodies fit in. Students were surprised to learn that Grosseteste actually theorised about the building of a telescope, which wasn’t put into practice for several centuries! 

Taking a cross-curricular stance, students explored cosmology through archaeology – they learned about rocks that have been found in Northumbria, thought to be from around 4000BC, which depict cup and ring marks that are thought to represent star charts. 

Students then explored cosmology in the modern day – how we understand the world around us using mathematical formulae, and are able to model the universe using super computers. They watched virtual simulations of the big bang, creations of galaxies, and formation of stars, and wondered if this is all that the universe is made of… 

Some very insightful questions were asked at the end, as students calculated the probability of finding a planet able to sustain life. The answer was that such a planet could be as close as 100 light years away, leading to discussions around why ‘aliens’ haven’t contacted us before…

OxNet Study Day

This year’s successful OxNet applicants joined a scholarly community by attending their first Study Day at Ushaw College in Durham, along with Dr Peter Claus and Professor Giles Gasper.

We welcomed students from 8 Sixth Forms and Colleges, 4 of whom are new to OxNet this year – Benfield School, Park View Academy, Prior Pursglove, Southmoor Academy, St Robert’s of Newminster, Stockton Sixth Form, Sunderland College and Byron Sixth Form.

Students threw away the boundaries of A-level study, and became undergraduates for the first time. They learned how to analyse gobbets of texts, debated the meaning of a ‘discipline’, and considered the criteria of what truly makes a science or a humanity. For example, is there really such a big difference between Physics and History? Students split into groups to present their findings, and were given one key piece of guidance – “you have not only the right, but the duty, to disagree”. Discussions were punctuated with tours of Ushaw College, including its chapel with a secret tunnel under the floor, and a library filled with over 30,000 books.

The day finished with a guide on university admissions from Richard Petty of Trinity College, Oxford, along with a student’s perspective on being a Northerner in Oxford from Tom Clennett, ex-student of Dyke House College in Hartlepool and current student of Chemistry at Brasenose College, Oxford.

Students came away with the notion that learning is like doing a jigsaw –  although the pieces may seem unclear at times, they eventually connect to create a coherent and exciting whole.

Light, the Universe, and Everything

Next week sees the tenth, and final, Ordered Universe symposium in the current series, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, UK. It is fantastic that we should be holding this symposium at the University of York, home institution of Tom McLeish, one Continue reading

Knowing and Speaking – Launched

A huge thank you to all who came to the launch for the first volume of The Scientific Works of Robert Grosseteste yesterday afternoon in Pembroke College, University of Oxford. It was wonderful to be hosted by the SCR, and in the company of the Master and Continue reading

Knowing and Speaking – Launch

A lovely moment for the Ordered Universe project. The first volume in our Oxford University Press series on The Scientific Works of Robert Grosseteste was published 11 days ago, on November 6th. In a resplendent red dust-jacket (the beginning of a rainbow as the other volumes appear), the volume presents Grosseteste’s treatises On the Liberal Arts and On the Generation of Sounds with an intriguing Middle English re-imagining of both texts The Seven Liberal Arts. Nineteen co-authors, from the wide range of disciplines that characterise the project contributed variously to the tasks of editing, translating, elucidating, and analysing the treatises, and Grosseteste’s remarkable thought processes.

So, we have discussion of the evolution of the liberal arts as a conceptual and educational schema, discussion of Grosseteste’s location and circumstances – from the southern Welsh borders to (possibly) Paris of the first decade of the thirteenth century. We have analysis of his interest in music, of his mastery of Aristotle’s natural philosophy – notably the traditions of interpretation around On the Soul and the Physics, and his familiarity with Islamiate authors such as Abu Ma’shar. And, we have analysis of the sonativum, the sounding object and its physical properties and behaviour, alongside discussion of human vocal production and perception of phonemes. These are integral to the interpretation of Grosseteste’s intentions in his first two treatises, and their re-working in Middle English. The volume moves from the ancient world to the end of the medieval period, and to our own; Islamicate thinkers, Christian authorities, Ancient authors, and contemporary scholars, are check by jowl with the natural phenomena discussed, and the moral framework that Grosseteste sets up for learning.

The two treatises show Grosseteste at the beginning of an enterprise that would occupy him for thirty years or so, exploring new learning from the Ancient World, and medieval Islamicate, dedicated to the understanding of natural philosophy. The later treatises focus on astronomy and geography, comets, meteorology, colour, light, the properties of matter, and the rainbow, amongst many other subjects. It is unusual to be able to follow  the development of a past thinker from youth to old age; it is the case for the study of Grosseteste’s world. And this is a journey that we make in his company, and in his footsteps.

This then, is a special moment for the team and the project. We have brought together individual scholarship on Grosseteste into a creative dynamic focused on his scientific works. The project’s radically interdisciplinary ethos fuels its emphasis on learning without frontiers, from youth to experience, and from the university classroom to city-streets with projection art, galleries, schools, shopping centres, festivals, public talks in conference centres, cathedrals, societies, and pubs. There are so many people and institutions involved, and so many to thank for their generosity of funding, time, expertise, and insight. Now in its eleventh year, and fifth of major funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council, Ordered Universe has developed a distinctive modus operandi, and a distinctive reach into sciences, humanities, and wider communities of learning and interest. As Grosseteste might note scale is not the key here, but intensity: all contributions, no matter how seemingly small, are vital to the outworking of what we do. And this volume, in this sense, represents so much more than the nineteen authors; and proudly so.

This afternoon we are very fortunate to be able to hold a reception for the first official launch of Knowing and Speaking at Pembroke College, University of Oxford, a few hundred metres or so from where Grosseteste would have taught in the early 1230s at the house of the Franciscans, Greyfriars. We are extremely grateful to the college for facilitating this gathering, especially the Master Dame Lynne Brindley. There will be further book launches and discussion of the volume and its implications will take place in January 2020 at the University of York, and March 2020 at Durham University.

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:

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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.

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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.

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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).

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