The next scientific breakthrough could come from the history books

Giles Gasper, Durham University; Hannah Smithson, University of Oxford, and Tom McLeish, Durham University

The idea that science isn’t a process of constant progress might make some modern scientists feel a bit twitchy. Surely we know more now than we did 100 years ago? We’ve sequenced the genome, explored space and considerably lengthened the average human lifespan. We’ve invented aircraft, computers and nuclear energy. We’ve developed theories of relativity and quantum mechanics to explain how the universe works. The Conversation Continue reading

Ordered Universe in Georgetown University – Washington D.C.

We’re all very excited about the upcoming Ordered Universe conference, next week, taking place under the aegis of the Department of Philosophy, Georgetown University, Washington D. C. We have a wide range of papers from various members of the team, including new participants as well as those whose acquaintance with the project goes back further. The theme of aspectus-affectus, perception and desire (with many different interpretations and explorations) is essential to an understanding of Grosseteste’s intellectual programme. The concepts, singly and jointly, are also embedded deep within medieval thought more generally. To examine these terms then is to encounter a conceptual framework at multiple levels of experience: across the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, in response to different sources of knowledge and at the service of different ends. Add to this too the perspectives from modern scientists working on perception of sight and sound. How to engage with, and learn from, Grosseteste’s teaching are central issues that emerge across the disciplines. It is a wonderful to be able to meet together again, made possible by Neil Lewis and Sandra Strachan-Vieira, and to share thoughts on wider questions posed by the subject of our studies. From astronomy to modern accounts of human perception, and 12th and 13th century thinkers to scientific creativity, a very stimulating gathering awaits. If you are in the Georgetown area please do be in touch and join us for the public talk on March 31st; we have too the poster for the conference proper below – please circulate!




Art, Science and Humanities – Public Talk at Georgetown University

Come and explore the results of a project that brings together modern science, the medieval past, and creative arts. The public talk will take a tour through the fascinating world of one of the most dynamic thinkers from the Middle Ages. While Robert Grosseteste may be unfamiliar nowadays, he was in thirteenth-century England an important religious leader and pastor, involved in shaping the currents of political life after Magna Carta, and a dazzling intellect. It is to his discussion of natural phenomena that the Ordered Universe project is dedicated. Bringing together a wide range of international scholars from different disciplines, including Philosophy, Physics, Arabic Studies, Psychology, History, English Studies and Engineering, the radical interdisciplinarity of the project allows the complexity of Grosseteste’s thought to be approached in new and exciting ways.

The talk will feature four speakers, representing different fields of study, and opening up different aspects of Grosseteste’s scientific vision. So, we begin with a philosopher, Neil Lewis from Georgetown, who are hosting the talk and its accompanying conference. Then the reactions of a physicist, Tom McLeish, to Grosseteste’s amazing treatise On Light, which describes the universe beginning with a single point of light, expanding instantaeneously to form a sphere. Eerie echoes of the Big Bang? Well, in some ways. Tom will share how the research group explored the implications of Grosseteste’s treatise on its own terms, and brought it to life in the form of a computer-generated model. Giles Gasper, a historian, will fill in some of the details of Grosseteste’s life, patchy though these are, and his significance in the intellectual changes of his day. These involve, crucially, the absorption of the treasure stores of knowledge from ancient Greek and medieval Islamic science, via translation into Latin, mostly in Spain, and disseminated across western Europe. Tom then moves to the most recent work of the Ordered Universe, examining Grosseteste’s On the Generation of Sounds – from sound to human vocal production, ancient learning  to modern interpretative tools, and from philology to phonetics. Finally, we showcase with Projection Artist Ross Ashton the startling potential for our interdisciplinary research as an inspiration for modern art. In this case sound and light shows, very appropriately, for Festivals in the UK and Europe, bringing research into dialogue with artists and the publics who participate in their production. The talk ends with an evocation of medieval and modern conceptions of the cosmos, as projected onto one of the glories of Romanesque architecture – Durham Cathedral. What Grosseteste would have thought, we can only wonder. His his own wonder at the universe, its beauty, mystery and explicability, continue to inspire.

Ordered Universe Reading Group (Durham)

The Durham Ordered Universe group completes its second term next week. We had great fun with Adelard of Bath’s Natural Questions – from the smallest seed to the food which stars might eat, and Adelard’s fierce insistence on reason and the authority of, what he calls, the Arabic learning he had encountered on his travels in the eastern Mediterranean. The part of the nephew became a regular source of fun as well. We then moved onto an exploration of Euclid’s Elements Book 1, with the translation by Adelard at hand (an image from an early 14th century copy, now British Library Burney 275 is above). This involved a lot of triangles. A lot of triangles. And a few circles. However, it was absolutely fascinating to work through the Axioms, Common Notions and then to think through and draw through the propositions. This was especially the case with an interdisciplinary mixed sciences and humanities group: the scientists among us had not formally been taught Euclid, but remarked that the methods and principles were, in fact, deeply familiar. For the humanities experts among us, seeing the beauty of geometry and its foundational place in medieval thinking was a moving experience. Next term we move to Seneca’s Natural Questions, and then we start John Sacrobosco’s De sphera in Michaelmas 2017! With a very short stop on Grosseteste’s Dictum On Clouds next week, as an end of term treat. We’ll publish the timetable for next term shortly  – if you’re in Durham and would like to come along, please let us know (

Medieval and Modern Science at Ely

On 11th February, Hannah and Giles were given a very warm welcome at Ely, at an open seminar organised by the Bishop of Huntingdon, Rt Revd David Thomson. David is also an Ordered Universe stalwart, taking the lead particularly on the Middle English version of some of Grosseteste’s earliest treatises. It was an especial pleasure, therefore, to be invited to Ely to present the project and its current work, some of the most recent scientific elements, and to participate in a lively and instructive question and answer session. We explored the life and times of Grosseteste, the context for his scientific works, and research into his rainbow treatise with Hannah’s ongoing work on retinal imaging.

We then ran a collaborative reading session on Grosseteste’s treatise On Colour. This was very stimulating, and, no matter how many times we read the text, new thoughts and and new interpretations arise. In this case the ideas were generated by the excellent and thoughtful participants. The event was run in the Old Palace, and our thanks go to all of the organisers, those who attended and to Bishop David. Certainly we came away with fresh insights. We then enjoyed a guided tour of the Cathedral, taken especially to see the Prior’s Door, with it’s magnificent carvings, including the zodiac. A stunning way to round off our visit to Ely. Thanks to all who made it possible!

The next scientific breakthrough…and the past

A short notice that Tom, Giles and Hannah have published a discussion piece in The Conversation, thinking through the inspiration that past engagement with natural phenomena can have on modern scientific thinking. Einstein, superconductivity, rainbows and ne0-classicism: it’s all here: The next scientific breakthrough



Public Lecture at Georgetown University

A public lecture coming up at Georgetown University. March 31st, 16.30, with full details below. Neil Lewis, Tom McLeish, Giles Gasper and Ross Ashton will be talking about the project, its recent research and collaborations with projection artist Ross Ashton. It will include a public showing of the sound and light shows created by the Projection Studio.


Ordered Universe is extremely grateful to Georgetown University Department of philosophy for funding and hosting the conference to which this lecture is attached, and to Durham University for additional travel funds.


BBC Look East on Spiritus: Light and Dark and the Cambridge e-Luminate Festival

 Karen Monid interviewed on BBC Look East, as part of the Cambridge e-Luminate Festival, and Spiritus: Light and Dark created with Ross Ashton, taking inspiration from Robert Grosseteste.

Spiritus – Light and Dark

A shortchanged film montage of most of Spiritus – we’ll have an official copy for the website in due course: this is to give the impression of how beautiful the piece was. Ross and Karen attended the latest Ordered Universe workshop together, in Durham in September last yea. This took the treatises On the SphereOn the Six Differences and looked over those On the Liberal ArtsOn the Generation of Sounds and the Seven Liberal Arts. The fruits of this collaboration are wonderful: a show meditative than World Machine, contemplating the different notions of creation between the Middle Ages and modern cosmology. Music is used, wholly consonantly with the place ancient and medieval authors gave to it in discussions of the harmony of the universe, and its rational, ratio-laden structure, to move the show forward, human voices entering only at the end. Different spurs for creation are considered too, natural explanation and spiritual, with the whole experience an immersive treat for the senses.

Ordered Universe at Cambridge e-luminate – Spiritus: Light and Dark

An absolutely fantastic day in Cambridge on February 10th, with the launch of the e-luminate festival. Ordered Universe team members, Giles Gasper, Tom McLeish, Richard Bower, Hannah Smithson and Sebastian Falk presented the project, and interactive activities on medieval and modern science to the public at Great St Mary’s Church. With over 250 visitors to the displays we were very glad to support Ross Ashton and Karen Monid’s simply breathtaking projection show Spiritus: Light and Dark. This was a dazzling juxtaposition of medieval astronomical thought, modern cosmology, and a wonderful tribute to the scientific imaginations, of Grosseteste and his later successors, the contemplative beauty of music inspired by Hildgard of Bingen, and the artistry to bring all of these together in a bewitching sequence. If you are in Cambridge the show, and all of the others across the city (as well as other events around e-luminate) are on until the 15th Feb: it will be well worth the trip. Ordered Universe members were very grateful for the assistance too of Jinni Tang (Durham University) and Eleanor Puttock (Faraday Institute) in marshalling the exhibits and audiences, and to Rev. John Binns and the staff at Great St Mary’s. Astrolabes, the world of Robert Grosseteste, visualising the medieval cosmos, a modern oculus rift journey into dark matter, contemporary glasswork from the National Glass Centre, University of Sunderland, and optical experiments from the 13th century. We all thoroughly enjoyed ourselves!

Images from Giles Gasper, Ross Ashton and Karen Monid