Things aren’t always black and white

Seminar Four of the OxNet North East programme introduced students to the psychology of colour. They began by discussing ‘The Dress’, and whether it was white and gold, black and blue, or something else. Using an article written by David Brainard and Anya Hurlbert, students applied the concept of colour context to this phenomenon, to understand how colour can differ based on its surrounding context.

Students then went back in time to look at Grosseteste’s concept of colour. They briefly explored his treatise ‘De Colore’, and were surprised to find that he explicitly introduced the idea of a three-dimensional colour theory, as opposed to Aristotle’s linear arrangement of colours ranging from white to black. They discussed why studying Grosseteste is not simply the main of historians, but that scientists are also interested in its works due to its focus on ‘experience’ (or what we would now call an ‘experiment’).

The seminar ended with an introduction to collaborative reading of Grosseteste’s treatise on the rainbow. Again, students challenged themselves by taking a cross-curricular look at rainbows, thinking about it not only from a scientific perspective in terms of its formation, but also its role in culture. For example, a rainbow is mentioned in Genesis following the great flood, and Bifrost is the rainbow bridge that connects Asgard and Midgard.

The Past is History

OxNet North East students explored the notion of History with Professor Giles Gasper, Durham University, in this year’s third OxNet Seminar. They started by discussing the question ‘Why study History?’ to which they replied – to learn from the past, because it’s interesting, and perhaps to make predictions about the future. They then explored the notion of what ‘History’ really is – is it inherently linked to people and experiences, or can we classify learning about the earth or the cosmos as ‘History’? Is it a standalone subject, or does it link to other disciplines like Politics and Sociology? The seminar certainly started with more questions than it answered, which challenged students to be inquisitive and feel comfortable with not always having an answer.

The seminar then moved onto the course reader, where students read and discussed an extract by John Arnold, entitled ‘Framing the Middle Ages’. Arnold argues that we shouldn’t ignore parts of history that don’t match up with the modern day, such as the Middle Ages. Students began by sharing common preconceptions about the Middle Ages, using words like ‘savage’, ‘violent’, ‘ignorant’, ‘superstitious’ and ‘religious’. They grappled with the difficulty of truly defining the Middle Ages, due to its complexity and broad chronological span, but concluded that the lightbulb saw the shift into the ‘modern’ day.

Students finished off by discussing how to actually find history, and all agreed that a historian needed evidence – be it writing, buildings, artefacts, or the physical landscape. They conducted close textual analysis of medieval contracts concerning groups of monks and the Bishop of Hereford, and were surprised to see the self-conscious nature of these documents – it was explicitly stated that the contracts were put into writing to preserve the information for future generations.

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. 

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 NorthEast 2018 Programme Launch, and Other Ordered Universe Updates

Next Monday the OxNet – Ordered Universe programme for 2018-19 launches in the North-East. Organised through the hub school at Southmoor Academy in Sunderland, the programme involves and is open to schools from across the regions. We’ll be holding a taster evening at St Peter’s Church in Sunderland, rich in its connections to the medieval heritage of the region and to the history of science – the church was once home to Bede. Join us for a tour of the church, sessions on Comets – medieval and modern, or Cultural Cosmology, with Brian Tanner, Sarah Gilbert, Jamie Irvine and Giles Gasper, from Durham University (Physics and History Departments), and, for parents a session on student life and myth-busting led by Peter Claus (University of Oxford) and Lee Worden (Durham). The sessions will give an insight into the sorts of activities we’ll run from January to July – evening seminars at St Peter’s on a wide variety of topics and subjects, a residential Easter School at Durham, and the longer residential school at Pembroke College, Oxford. Moving between science and humanities, and medieval and modern thinking, we’ll show the students what it is that we can do at university, the joys and challenges of collaboration, how to ask questions and think more deeply about the world around us. The evening will wrap up with talks from Peter Claus on the OxNet programme and its philosophy, Sammy Wright from Southmoor Academy, Claire Ungley our OxNet North East co-ordinator, two students who attended the course last year, and finally Giles Gasper introducing Ordered Universe. 

And in other news we can report a number of talks delivered by Ordered Universe members in recent weeks. Neil Lewis was at the Medieval Studies Institute at Indiana University on October 17, and gave a presentation on ‘Robert Grosseteste and the Ordered Universe:  The value of interdisciplinary study for solving textual and interpretative problems’, Giles Gasper gave a paper to the Durham University Centre for Catholic Studies Seminar on the Hexaemeron and Scientific Literacy in the Middle Ages, with a focus on Grosseteste on November 8th, and Nader El-Bizri gave two talks, on Monday 12th November at the Arab School of Astrophysics at American University of Beirut on Ibn al-Haytham, Selenography and Optical Studies on the Light of the Moon, with Ordered Universe as a model. Nader is also to be found tomorrow at the UNESCO sponsor event, ‘Une nuit de la philosophie‘ in Paris, tonight!