Sections

Services

Information

UK United Kingdom

Medieval bishop’s theory resembles modern concept of multiple universes

A 13th century bishop’s theory about the formation of the universe has intriguing parallels with the theory of multiple universes. This was uncovered by the the Ordered Universe project at Durham University…

Image of the world. Bibliothèque de France, Fr.14964, fol. 117

A 13th century bishop’s theory about the formation of the universe has intriguing parallels with the theory of multiple universes. This was uncovered by the the Ordered Universe project at Durham University, which has brought together researchers from humanities and the sciences in a radically collaborative way.

The project explores the conceptual world of Robert Grosseteste, one of the most dazzling minds of his generation (1170 to 1253): sometime bishop of Lincoln, church reformer, theologian, poet, politician, and one of the first to absorb, teach and debate new texts on natural phenomena that were becoming available to western scholars. These texts, principally the natural science of the greek scholar Aristotle, were translated from Arabic into Latin during the course of the 12th and 13th centuries, along with a wonderful array of material from Islamic and Jewish commentators. They revolutionised the intellectual resources of western scholars, posing challenges to established ways of thinking.

We now recognise that the thinking they stimulated prepared the way for the scientific advances of the 16th and 17th centuries, too. Nearly 800 years later the example of Grosseteste’s works provides the basis for doing great interdisciplinary work, offering unexpected challenges to both modern scientists and humanities experts alike, especially in working closely together.

Giant of science

Grosseteste has been a prominent figure in the history of science, from the early decades of the 20th century, yet the vital 1912 edition of his works is badly in need of revision: the editor had access to fewer than half the extant manuscripts. So we are taking on this task.

While Grosseteste may not be the originator of western experimental science, his scientific works come close to advocating experiments. They are also beautifully balanced mathematical constructions, not always apparent to a literary reading, yet wondrously so to later medieval generations.

The core team of researchers for this work are drawn from medieval history and theology, vision science, physics and cosmology, medieval philosophy, with many other colleagues engaged on particular aspects of the treatises under scrutiny, from marine scientists to astronomers. Following a principle of collaborative reading, all researchers contribute to the preparation of the edition, the translation and the interpretation.

The light fantastic

Grosseteste’s treatise on light, called De Luce (Concerning Light), is the earliest known attempt to describe the universe using a coherent set of physical laws, centuries before Isaac Newton. It proposes that the same physics of light and matter, which explain the solidity of ordinary objects, could be applied to the cosmos as a whole.

In explaining the formation of the ancient universe, geocentric and composed of a series of nested spheres, Grosseteste conceives the universe as beginning from a single point of light, the fusion of matter and form, which expands until matter can be moved no further: the first sphere. A different form of light radiates inwards compressing matter, until it will move no further, generating the second sphere, and so on.

Grosseteste’s calculations are very consistent and precise. Had he had access to modern calculus and computing methods, he surely would have used them. In a recent paper, just published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society A, our team built computer models to express Grosseteste’s equations. In doing so it suggests, although this was probably not apparent to Grosseteste at the time, a series of ordered universes reminiscent of the modern “multiverse” concept.

misha1969, CC BY

Colour and illumination

We have been led to other startling discoveries. Correcting some serious errors in the modern edition has clarified Grosseteste’s three-dimensional conception of colour: two qualities of light (copious or scarce, bright or dim) couple with a third connected to the medium embodying it (pure or impure).

We have been able to use Grosseteste’s theory of the rainbow to find a new coordinate system for modern three-dimensional colour space. In his theory, the three dimensions of colour reappear as differences between rainbows and within rainbows, and under different solar illumination. As a result we have been able to describe a new “meshed spiral” co-ordinate system for the colour-space scientists use today.

Humanities and science

For those in the humanities, this work enshrines the significance of Grosseteste as a thinker, and has shown the profoundly important ways in which modern scientists have helped to shape the processes of editing, translating and commenting on his works. For the scientists, this work has given a new historical perspective on our current assumptions, and new science, such as development in calculation tools for a class of shock wave, or novel colour mapping.

As well as inspiring the surprising new science, all of these investigations sharpen our knowledge of this thinker and his texts by urging a closer, “functional” reading of the text. Each step is also deepening and widening our historical appreciation of Grosseteste and his creative, disciplined and vivid intellectual imagination.

As long as dialogue between the disciplines is maintained there are no backward steps. Every suggestion contributes to the understanding of where we stand in relation to Grosseteste’s world, and in longer perspective where science comes from within human culture. Our project explores modern and medieval scientific questions, and draws on historical and contemporary interpretations in a symbiosis of science and humanities skills. As science writer Michael Brookes in a recent New Statesman piece points out, it illustrates the intellectual curiosity and creative flair released when the two cultures meet.

Join the conversation

19 Comments sorted by

  1. Thomas Goodey

    Researcher

    Nothing cited in this article gives any support to the idea that Grosseteste had any idea whatever about science. His works are just medieval vaporings like other medieval vaporings such as those of Aquinas, but marginally more interesting. They convey nothing of importance to our current thinking, except some modicum of historical perspective.

    report
    1. Tom McLeish

      Professor of Physics and Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Research at Durham University

      In reply to Thomas Goodey

      Thomas, not sure what you mean by 'vaporings', or indeed by 'science' in this short statement. Of course this is not modern science by current standard, and we would never wish to promote a naive 'presentist' argument that says so. But equally it is important the trace the long and difficult emergence of ideas and motivations that lead to current science. The narrative that the enlightenment ideas of Newton and Galileo etc appeared from nowhere is equally untenable.

      The Proc Roy Soc article…

      Read more
    2. Thomas Goodey

      Researcher

      In reply to Tom McLeish

      I understand your point. Essentially you are saying that Grosseteste was tentatively propounding the idea that "natural laws" have brought about the present structure of the visible universe, as distinct from arbitrary actions of the Deity. To what extent, however, did he maintain that there was no ongoing intervention by God in the process of building up the solar system? In other words, did Grosseteste think (as Newton and Galileo thought) that God set up the natural laws, pushed the button to…

      Read more
    3. Chris Jeynes

      Senior researcher at University of Surrey

      In reply to Thomas Goodey

      Thomas: Grosseteste was insisting that God did not behave arbitrarily or capriciously, not with regard to us nor with regard even to the operation of his creation. Why is seventeenth and eighteenth century deism required for epistemological consistency?

      You are also quite wrong about the "standing back". Just because there is an immediate cause of a phenomenon does not mean there is not also a chain of causation back to the ultimate cause. The mediaevals were much more subtle than you appear to be!

      What is practical importance? Is the LHC "practical"? But the job of building it (on time and on budget!) certainly was! Do we deduce that you like your values all nicely packaged for evaluation by the accountants? I think it is brilliant that the Durham people are re-evaluating mediaeval philosophy so that we can better understand the genesis of the scientific method (and, hence, the face of the world today).

      report
  2. Marek Bekerman

    logged in via Twitter

    The concept of multiple and parallel universes is inherent in Hinduist and Buddhist teachings and predates Grosseteste by millenia. Arrived at by intuitive introspection and other means considered non-scientific in today's terms, they have been found strikingly accurate and in line with Einstein's calculations. Grosseteste's contribution is more about reclaiming what was already known in the ancient world and re-translating it into contemporary terms of reference to the mediaeval West.

    report
    1. Thomas Goodey

      Researcher

      In reply to Marek Bekerman

      Not really. The idea that there may be more universes that we cannot perceive is indeed present in the old Eastern literature, but the idea that they are constantly branching off from our universe every time we make a decision, or something, is completely absent. Moreover of course these old ideas have nothing whatever to do with Einstein's calculations; that's absurd. And I don't for a moment think Grosseteste was re-discovering and popularizing views from the ancient world; I think he was coming up with these ideas for himself; but I will leave it to the author of the article to argue that one.

      report
  3. Gavin Moodie
    Gavin Moodie is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Adjunct professor at RMIT University

    Thanx for this interesting account. I have three points, if I may.

    I presume Grosseteste wrote in Medieval Latin.

    Did Grosseteste use Hindu-Arabic or Latin numerals? Fibonacci's Liber Abaci was written in 1202 but didn't become widespread until the 15th century.

    What was the relation between Grosseteste's natural philosophy (if that is not anachronistic) and his theology? If I understand it correctly, Gaukroger (2006) argues that it was because natural philosophy was joined in a mutual enterprise with theology to explain god's natural wonders that the flowering of scientific knowledge in Europe in the 16 and 17th centuries was sustained as The scientific revolution.

    Gaukroger, Stephen (2006) The emergence of a scientific culture. Science and the shaping of modernity, 1210-1685, Clarendon Press, Oxford.

    report
    1. Thomas Goodey

      Researcher

      In reply to Gavin Moodie

      I am sure that Grosseteste's natural philosophy was completely under the thumb of his theology. He would have risked being burnt, otherwise.

      And of course he didn't use the zero. It was too early in his area.

      report
    2. Tom McLeish

      Professor of Physics and Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Research at Durham University

      In reply to Thomas Goodey

      Dear Thomas

      please dont let yourself down - this is not a well-informed comment. There were several christian (ordained) thinkers and scholars in the 13th century like Grosseteste thinking very freely on the basis of Muslim commentaries on pagan Greek natural philosophy and no one was getting persecuted for it. Turns out that he did use Arabic numerals - unusually - and thereby hangs an interesting tale in the mutuation of a number (14) in his "de Colore" through copying of manuscripts into another number (9). Since the number is the sum of 7+7 we had trouble wiht the 9 until we noticed that a scribe only used to Roman numerals wouldnt know what to do with "14" except to write "IX" for it (especially as the arabic 4s were written in a very open way then). IX then got transcribed "novem". Its all in our edition and commentary "Dimensions of Colour" (PIMS press 2013).

      report
    3. Tom McLeish

      Professor of Physics and Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Research at Durham University

      In reply to Gavin Moodie

      Thanks Gavin.

      The theological story is fascinating and, under close scrutiny, almost the opposite of the coffee-table book history of science of medieval vs. modern.

      So while F. Bacon, Halley, Wren, Hooke and the early modern founders of English 17thh century revolution were explicit about their theological motivation for doing science (ref Peter Harrison, "The Fall of Man and the Foundations of Science", CUP, 2007), Grosseteste is very sparing about the theological motivation for explaining…

      Read more
    4. Gavin Moodie
      Gavin Moodie is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Adjunct professor at RMIT University

      In reply to Tom McLeish

      Thanx very much Tom.

      Grosseteste seems fascinating, and so early! I will follow up on Harrison (2007). I also note that Goering is at the University of Toronto which I am currently living opposite. I will find if there is a lecture I may catch.

      I was also very interested in your account of IX. I understand that scribes inexpert in natural philosophy mistook Roman numerals for abbreviated words and transcribed them wrongly, further corrupting scientific texts.

      report
    5. Chris Jeynes

      Senior researcher at University of Surrey

      In reply to Tom McLeish

      Thanks so much for bringing all this to our attention, Tom. My understanding is that Aquinas wrote the "Summa" specifically to protect what I will anachronistically call Christian science from the proto-Inquistition. He wanted to show how Aristotle could be criticised from a consistent position, specifically with regard to the "First Cause", an idea that Aristotle considered an oxymoron but essential to Christians. (One could add, to Muslims too, but the Islamic world never had an equivalent…

      Read more
    6. Gavin Moodie
      Gavin Moodie is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Adjunct professor at RMIT University

      In reply to Chris Jeynes

      One might add that Islam banned printing for 4 centuries (Huff). In view of the Reformation perhaps the Caliphs were right, at least in the medium term. But arguably this also impeded Arabic-Islamic science, which for the several centuries earlier had been most advanced.

      Huff, Toby E (1993) The rise of early modern science: Islam, China, and the West, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

      report
  4. max farrar

    sociologist

    I welcome this cross-disciplinary research and I'm glad to see you have theologians on board. I hope they are reminding you of aspects of Grosseteste's thinking which are contemptible. I quote from David Nirenberg's important book 'Anti-Judaism': 'When Simon de Montfort's aunt, the Countess of Winchester, welcomed the refugee Jews of Leicester into her domains, Grosseteste wrote her a letter of unusual acrimony. The Jews, he said, were like Cain, enslaved to all nations for the murder of Christ…

    Read more
    1. Giles Gasper

      Senior Lecturer in Medieval History at Durham University

      In reply to max farrar

      There is a very balanced article on the subject by Joe Goering as well. At the moment the research is focusing on the period well before he was bishop, and before the major theological works. Have you looked at Gavin Langmuir as well on long history of persecution?

      report
  5. Patricia Wilson

    retired teacher

    I know from experience with "techies" that they need much more knowledge of the humanities just so names of items used as symbols by someone don't end up being "trashed" because it came from Spain or wherever so it must be out of the world politics that citizens of USA don't need. For a while Google was blocking BBC news I subscribed for and then Guardian. Finally they cut out Guernica--a literary magazine and I had to set all of them straight. Yes, it came from Spain but not as politics. The…

    Read more