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On The Shoulders of Giants

Should more of us have heard of Robert Grosseteste, the thirteenth-century English theologian whom many see as a pioneer of modern science? Grosseteste (perhaps appropriately, the name means ‘big head’) made original contributions to pretty much everything he turned his hand to, from the liberal arts to philosophy and the natural sciences. Literary specialists are interested in him, because of his extraordinarily rich and allusive style of writing. But it is his work on the physics of light and on cosmology – which includes the first known suggestion that the visible universe is expanding from a fixed point (what we call the Big Bang theory) — which is really bringing him to modern attention.

Funded by an AHRC International Network grant and based at Durham University, the Grosseteste Science Project brings together scholars from all over the world, to re-translate and re-examine the works of this one-time Bishop of Lincoln. The collaborative team includes Dr Giles Gasper, associate director of Durham’s Institute of Medieval and Early Modern Studies, Dr Hannah Smithson (Vision Science, Oxford), Professor Tom McLeish (Physics, Durham and pro-vice chancellor for research), Dr Cecilia Panti (Philosophy, Rome) and Professor Greti Dinkova-Bruun (Latin Palaeography, Toronto).

Giles Gasper explains the group’s methods: ‘Grosseteste’s texts are read, commented on and edited both by medieval specialists and by modern scientists, with the result that our new translations are historically and linguistically, but also scientifically rigorous.’ The aim eventually is to work through the whole corpus of Grosseteste’s writings, replacing the current edition that is now over a century old. And already, the effect has been dramatic. As Giles Gasper puts it, ‘mistakes in the old editions had meant that the texts didn’t make sense scientifically, making them appear pretty crackers. The revised editions have confirmed our great respect for Grosseteste’s work, and for medieval science as a whole.’ The project also provides translations of these works, making them available and accessible in English, in many cases for the first time.

Grosseteste was prominent among western thinkers in his appreciation that natural phenomena could be described mathematically, and there are hints in his work of an experimental approach. It is this that has led Grosseteste to be hailed as the founder of the modern western scientific tradition, and the precursor of figures such as Roger Bacon at Oxford. Giles Gasper explains that the excitement of working with scientists from a number of institutions and fields including the Durham institute of Computational Cosmology. ‘They’ve been astonished at how logical they’re finding his conclusions to be, given the cultural parameters within which he was working.’

One of the keys to Grosseteste’s astonishing breaks with medieval orthodoxy was his use of works of Aristotle (especially the Physics), newly available to the medieval West translated into Latin from the Arabic, and accompanied by Arabic commentaries.

Yet Grosseteste’s work was largely overlooked during his lifetime, and long afterwards. His remarkably succinct treatise De Luce, ‘On Light,’ sets out for the first time the idea that the universe has changed through time, expanding from a central point — 700 years before modern descriptions of the Big Bang from the likes of Georges Lemaître and Edwin Hubble. And yet no-one took it up — the next writer to suggest the idea was Edgar Allan Poe, in the nineteenth century.

As a physicist, Tom McLeish comes at Grosseteste from a different direction. An early interest in Grosseteste, having heard about him during lunchtime lectures at Leeds, has flourished in the collaborative setting of the AHRC Network. ‘Most people probably don’t appreciate how astonishing this guy’s work is,’ he says. Tom McLeish talks about Grosseteste’s ‘Newtonian leap,’ in trying to use the same physics to describe everything in the observable universe, no matter its size.

Inevitably, there are aspects of Grosseteste’s work that still seem quite strange to a modern scientist. He was working, after all, with the Aristotelian model of the universe, with a static Earth at its centre, orbited by the sun, planets and stars. In this, according to Tom McLeish, Grosseteste was ‘completely wrong, but wrong in an interesting way.’ And wrong in a way, moreover, that is very much consistent with his initial assumptions. ‘It’s by no means obvious that the Earth isn’t at the centre of the universe, especially if you don’t have a telescope (which wasn’t invented until long after Grosseteste’s death). Which of our assumptions will seem equally bizarre in eight hundred years’ time?’

For Tom McLeish, the ultimate value of the project is to show that science is just as deeply human a thing as other aspects of culture. ‘We used to be sold a coffee table history of science, which said that before the Enlightenment everything was mystical and dark, but then “God said let Newton be — and all was light”. But Newton himself said that he was standing on the shoulders of giants, a phrase that originated in the Middle Ages. Who were those giants? We’re getting back to a lost continuity in science, which goes from the Islamic scholars and western thinkers of the Middle Ages, all the way back to the classical world. We see achievements in new dimensions, but this is only possible through our wonderful, rich collaboration. We hope that Grosseteste would approve!'

Feature by Matt Shinn

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