The OxNet-Ordered Universe 2019 seminar programme is in full swing with the 2019 cohort of school students aged 16-17 (Lower Sixth Form, Year 12) from the North-East. Students from Southmoor Academy, St Anthony’s, St Robert of Newminster, and Park View Academy, Continue reading →
The Ordered Universe Project is delighted to announce that long-time friend of the project Dr Nicola Polloni will be in Durham on Tuesday 5 March 2019 to give a lecture about one of his research interests: the notion of prime matter, especially in consideration of Premodern discussions of matter-theories in philosophy and science c. 1200-1700. See below for more details.
Illustrating the nested spheres of light created in Grosseteste’s cosmogeny
The Ordered Universe team tend to find themselves contemplating a dark sky rather than a dark forest and thinking about how the straight paths through the universe were found, rather than the paths through heaven and hell, but this week Ordered Universe team members Giles Gasper and Tom McLeish were Virgil to the audience’s Dante as they led a lunchtime lecture in Durham University’s Institute of Advanced Study.
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.
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.
Perhaps 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…’]
I started my reading about Grosseteste and his scientific works with ‘The Dimensions of Colour’ on the De colore. Although when reading the translation I couldn’t picture Grosseteste’s model in my head, I was baffled by its complexity and sophistication. Such an abstract account of the phenomenon of colour was certainly not what I expected from a medieval scholar and theologian, who later in his life even became bishop. Furthermore, I found that the critical edition and translation broadened my horizon not only with respect to the content of the treatise, but also concerning the challenge of establishing in the first place what the original content was. As I said, I know embarrassingly little about history and the methods involved in the discipline, and it was very interesting to see how the multitude of diverging manuscripts can be a caveat to appreciating the coherence of medieval scientific thought. Continue reading →