Last year “Minor Planet 36169” was renamed “Grosseteste”. But why?
Grosseteste (1175 -1253) was a thirteenth-century theologian and church administrator with an impressive career. In his lifetime he served as Chancellor of the University of Oxford, Bishop of Lincoln and Archbishop of Canterbury. There is no doubt that he was a gifted administrator, translator and theologian and it is believed he had an important impact on the politics and politicians of his time. While his administrative and political works are fairly well known, the same cannot be claimed about his contributions to science, which to this day have not even been properly edited and published. He wrote more than 300 works on a wide variety of subjects like theology, meteorology, colour and optics as well as mathematics, most of which however was even in his own lifetime poorly read.
The aim of a new project is to re-edit and translate the scientific treatises, in order to present them from the perspective of their own intellectual history, as well as to analyse them functionally, using where appropriate the insights and conceptual tools of modern science.
Recently the project got further support through an AHRC “international network grant”. In connection with this – and presumably to vet the interest of the masses – a snippet of this new form of interdisciplinary research into the scientific writings of Grosseteste was presented in a more popular form.
Point of departure is some fascinating experiments carried through on the basis of the cosmology of Grosseteste as it was presented in one of his most important scientific works, his treatise “De Luce” or “Concerning Light”. In it he proposed a model of the cosmos – created through expansion and changing through time – that by some has been regarded as some 700 years ahead of Georges Lemaître and Edwin Hubble, the fathers of modern day cosmology and the theory of Big Bang.
Of course these ideas did not sit well with the static model of the universe, which dominated at that time, according to which it was believed that the universe consisted of a series of static spheres. Accordingly he worked hard to reconcile this world-view with his own understanding of the character of light. In the end he came up with a solution, which suggested an expanding, but finite universe where lux (light) carries matter away from a central point until it reaches a point of stasis, while lumen, another form of light, encourages it to once more contract. Inside these movements the spheres were believed by him to be formed.
This may seem really bizarre. However in the project scientists have worked together with medievalists in Durham in order to “see if it could possibly have worked”. Although the model falls short of what modern astronomers and physicists might accept as a viable model, it did work at the time of Grosseteste as a valid explanation of how the “spheres might have come about”. In this sense Grosseteste might have said to be a really brilliant forerunner of those modern scientists, who adhere to the Big-Bang theory, according to which it is believed that the Universe exploded 13,75 billion years ago from a singularity of infinite density and temperature.
This may all seem somewhat farfetched! But it is an interesting example of how it is indeed possible to think of proper science and physics as something, which were never just a modern preoccupation. There is no doubt that Grosseteste in his scientific work was inspired by the newly rediscovered translations and commentaries of Aristotle to try and square his observations of natural phenomena with those of the established theological dogma. In this sense he did act as a significant forerunner of later scientists.
At least it seems appropriate to have a planet named after him!
The Dimensions of Colour: Robert Grosseteste’s De colore
Robert Grosseteste’s De colore (On Colour), in which Grosseteste constructs a combinatorial account of colour, plays an important role within the canon of his scientific works. In this edition, translation and commentary, the conceptual and analytical tools of contemporary science, itself a descendent of Grosseteste and his contemporaries, bring his physical and mathematical reasoning into sharper relief.
Edition, Translation and Interdisciplinary Analysis By Greti Dinkova-Bruun, Giles E.M. Gasper, Michael Huxtable, Tom C.B. McLeish, Cecilia Panti and Hannah Smithson
Durham Medieval and Renaissance Texts 4. 2013.
x, 94 pp. ISBN 978–0–88844–564–3 • Paper • $19.95
Robert Grosseteste and His Intellectual Milieu
Fourteen papers on the works and intellectual context of Robert Grosseteste, bishop, philosopher, and theologian, including new editions and English translations of Grosseteste’s De luce, his Latin translation of John of Damascus, and his Sermon 86.
New Editions and Studies Edited by John Flood, James R. Ginther, and Joseph W. Goering.
Papers in Mediaeval Studies 24. 2013. xiv, 430 pp. ISBN 978–0–88844–824–8 • Cloth • $90.00
Grosseteste’s significant contributions to science and theology are a testament to his reputation as a consummate polymath. This wide-raging collection of essays in honour of James McEvoy also includes two essays by him.
Edited by Jack P. Cunningham
Papers in Mediaeval Studies 21. 2012. xviii, 362 pp. ISBN 978–0–88844–821–7 • Cloth • $90.00