Robert Grosseteste and the Ordered Universe

Tomorrow I’m off to the historic city of Lincoln to give a public lecture, the inaugural Robert Grosseteste Lecture on Astrophysics/Cosmology.

This new series of lectures is named in honour of Robert Grosseteste (c. 1175 – 9 October 1253), a former Bishop of Lincoln, who (among many other things) played a key role in the development of the Western scientific tradition. His De Luce seu de Inchoatione Formarum (“On Light or the Beginning of the Forms”), written around 1220, includes pioneering discussions about cosmogony, which contains many ideas that resonate what I shall be talking about in my lecture. In particular, De Luce explores the nature of matter and the cosmos. Seven centuries before the Big Bang theory, Grosseteste described the birth of the Universe in an explosion and the crystallisation of matter to form stars and planets in a set of nested spheres around Earth. It therefore probably represents the first attempt to describe the ordered system of the Heavens and Earth using a single set of physical laws.

Anyway, this led me to an interesting website about an interdisciplinary project that involves discussing Robert Grosseteste in the context of mediaeval science, called “Ordered Universe”. Here’s an interesting video from that site, which features both historians and scientists.

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12 Responses to “Robert Grosseteste and the Ordered Universe”

  1. Anton Garrett Says:

    Grosseteste’s contemporary Nahmanides, a Jewish mystic, wrote in 1250 in his commentary on the Book of Genesis chapters 1-6 that the initial creation produced an entity so thin that it had no “substance” to it. It was the only physical creation ever to occur and it was all concentrated within the speck of space that was the entire universe just following its creation. As the universe expanded from the size of that original minuscule space, the primordial substanceless substance changed into matter as we know it; with the appearance of matter, time “grabs hold”.

    Nahmanides’ Hebrew is set out together with an English translation by Jacob Newman in a book published in 1960 by EJ Brill Publishers of Leiden as volume 4 of the “Pretoria Oriental ” series. I have not inspected a copy, and the summary I have given is taken largely from Gerald Schroeder’s book “The Science of God”, p56.

    What (in translation) did Grosseteste say, in a bit more detail, about the primordial explosion, please?

  2. I assume “Grossteste” translates as “Bighead” in some hybrid German/Romance-language way? (Norman French? – not a language in which I am fluent…) Presumably a nickname expressing admiration for his intellectual capabilities?

  3. Anton Garrett Says:

    I suppose there was no opportunity to discuss the matter of what Grosseteste wrote in Latin, and meant, in view of the disruption to your timetable?

    • telescoper Says:

      Sadly not, but I will follow it up later on. It’s not just a question of the Latin, it’s also about the context in which it was written. Grosseteste clearly took a great deal of contemporary theological thought for granted and without understanding that translation is likely to be very superficial and probably very misleading.

  4. […] Robert Grosseteste Lecture in Astrophysics/Cosmology. The lecture series is named after a medieval bishop of Lincoln, Robert Grosseteste. Peter took us on a time journey of the formation of the Universe and the history of our knowledge […]

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