Is the Lord’s Answer to Job a Slap-Down or an Invitation?

screen-shot-2016-01-22-at-8-22-45-amIn public and private presentations of Faith and Wisdom in Science, discussions of the central Book of Job often arise.  In particular, in regard to the interpretation of the ‘Lord’s Answer’ in chapters 38-42, I have been encouraged to give a little more.  To recall, I find this extraordinary ancient nature-poem of questions (Were you there when I laid the foundations of the Earth? … Do you know the way to the abode of light … Can you count the clouds …) by no means a divine ‘put-down’, as it is sometimes interpreted, but rather an invitation to take the Creator’s perspective, and to engage with the natural world.

There are a couple  preliminary ‘ground-clearing’ operations to do. It would be wrong to suggest that YHWH is inviting Job to ‘do science’ in the modern sense. My thesis is that ‘science is the name of the current chapter in a book that humankind has been writing since its origin’. So the earlier ‘chapters’ are not ‘science’ in the modern sense but are in continuity with it. The point is that the passage is inviting a cognitive questioning of the natural world, a perspective of responsibility and care rather than abdication and complaint – it is about relationship above all. Our relationship with the natural world underlies what ‘science’, which is more a set of tools to achieve it, lies deeper and is foundational to science, not science itself. Job is at the headwaters of that narrative – that is the claim.

Job Blake

From William Blake’s series of paintings depicting scenes from the Book of Job. Behemoth and Leviathan Wikimedia commons

The other essential preliminary is the implied claim about what YHWH is notdoing.  What you term the ‘standard’ interpretation of Job 38-42 (though when you actually work through the commentaries it doesn’t look that way, especially among the more scholarly of them) is that the string of questions is meant as what we would term a ‘put-down’.  This is YHWH speaking from an elevated position of authority down to the presumptuous Job, unleashing a volley of rapid-fire tests of his knowledge and understanding to the end that it is clear to Job that he has neither [1].  So part of the support for an invitational interpretation needs to be a critique of this one.

(1) The introductory trope (v3) ‘Gird up your loins like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer me’. This is of course as close an answer to your original question as you could want – it is of course, and quite explicitly, an ‘invitation’.  Specifically it is an invitation to (metaphorical) combat between two male (the verse is gendered) contenders. Quite the opposite of denigration, the invocation of this standard invitation to combat [2] is a mark of respect as an opponent, so Hartley, ‘Neither [Job’s] affliction nor his inflamed rhetoric has diminished his intrinsic worth as a human being’ [3].  Job scholar David Clines imputes a desire to win to YHWH, rather than to browbeat at this point [4].  This may ‘locally’ be the point, but as Stump points out in her magisterial study of Biblical wilderness experience and theodicies, the overarching aim of YHWH is to love – understanding that love must at times be severe, permissive of a free response, and teleologically restorative [5].

(2) The form of the Answer as questions. The pejorative use of questions, common (perhaps sadly) in our own society, is by no means universal.  In particular the question-form is not used this way in ancient Hebrew, but predominantly as a stimulus to reflection, thought and learning.  It is the central educational instrument.  The preponderance of questions throughout Biblical literature is itself significant.  The Jewish love affair with the questioning mind persists to this day.  It is enshrined in the Seder liturgy of course, in the role of the children present whose task it is to ask the important questions. The cultural love of the question carries down to to our own day; it is reflected in the story told by Jewish physicist Isidore Rabi, whose mother would ask him every day on coming home from school, ‘Did you ask any good questions today?’.  So the questions in The Lord’s Answer ought first to be interpreted through this, thought-provoking lens, not that of point- scoring (or several other possible interpretations such as a request for information, a rhetorical pathway to a trap and so on). A closely lasted set of divine questions, also referring to natural creation, as noted by Habel [6] is found in Second Isaiah (e.g. 40:12-15, 45:18-22) where their point is to generate reflection in the recipient to the end that they conceive of God’s power to act.  Westermann also refers to these ‘trial speeches of Second Isaiah where YHWH and the gods of the surrounding nations confront each other in a legal process, the purpose of which is to decide who is truly God.’ [7]  Essential to this background is that when YHWH defends himself that is not an end in itself, but rather a preliminary that then allows humans to follow the true God into their true task (in the case of Second Isaiah to take up the role of ‘The Servant’ in renewing the relationship with God’s People (Ch 49). A New Testament echo is Jesus invitation to John’s disciples to interpret what they see – he too answers a question with a question (Matt 11:2-10).  So the questions in Job, which fall into this pattern of ‘education’ (literally ‘leading out’ of course) to a purpose is the appropriate expectation – the readers task is to identify what it being learned and to what purpose.


When all the angels sang for joy … Job Ch. 38

(3) The structure and quantity of questions, and the context of Job’s earlier questions. There are approaching 170 of them.  It would take 2 or 3 only to establish that YHWH possessed knowledge and Job ignorance. The extensive litany tells us from a structural point of view that more is going on here. I have detailed the categories, realms of nature, and detailed referential links to the nature metaphors invoked in the earlier cycles of speeches of the book before [8] so won’t go into unnecessary detail here. However, we must recall that these are productive, leading questions –  sort that suggest investigations in such of answers. They also cover the catalogue of nature’s wild side, from the depths of the oceans to the clustering of the stars. They touch on Job’s partial, but incomplete knowledge.  Within the framework established in (2) above of education to a purpose, it is more than suggestive that that purpose has to do with nature itself. The vital point here is that YHWH’s questions do tackle head-on the actual substance of Job’s complaint.  It bears repeating – Job’s accusation is not primarily that he is suffering unjustly but that this is just part of a much wider problem of a cosmos out of control.  It is the aleatory strike of the lightning bolt (36:32), the earthquake (9:5), disease (10:9) and the flood (6:15) that constitutes the foundation of his case against YHWH.  This is why it is appropriate for the Answer to address the free reign of natural processes that give rise to the rich complexity that the magnificent survey of Job 38-42 encompasses.

(4) The manner of YHWH’s appearing – of the whirlwind, is paradoxically what Job simultaneously most desires and most fears. He has already anticipated that an epiphany would crush him (9:34), yet repeatedly requested it (13:15). When it happens, it is far from crushing- Job is invited to stand up and ‘gird his loins’ (see 1 above). Furthermore the epiphany is more than suggestive of the canonical appearance to Moses on Sinai. The cover of cloud is replaced by the cover of a whirlwind, the spoken commandments by a speech of a different kind, but the context of covenant is very suggestive.

(5) The context of the Hymn to Wisdom in Job 28. The connection between YHWH’s answer and the Hymn to Wisdom is vital, for the ‘Answer’ is as much an answer to the great question there – Where can Wisdom be found? – as it is to Job’s demands for vindication and explanation. Again I have written about Job 28 in detail elsewhere [8] but the salient point is that the metaphor of the miner in Job 28 points out the special nature of humans that set us apart from other animals is that we are able to see into the structure of nature deeper than they, and by our own art. The shocking final passage of the Hymn to Wisdom parallels this as the characteristic function of God’s own wisdom. It is a call to follow the Creator into a deeper knowledge of creation. Job 38 takes the same journey to and through the depths as Job 28 – it is a personal enactment of the invitation there.  This is an invitation to take God’s perspective on nature.  That is explicit in Job 28 and a natural interpretation of Job 38, not only because of the context of the search for Wisdom of the whole book, but because that is precisely what Job needs to do.  For another stark example of being asked to take God’s perspective, see the close parallel of Jonah, where God’s lessons to Jonah are also worked through a phenomenon of nature (a sun-wilted bush) and where the key question is left hanging.  Alternatively and movingly see the entire book of Hosea, where the prophet is invited into YHWH’s emotional perspective of rejected love.

(6) The effect upon Job. Were the speeches meant as a crushing put-down (note I do not say that they are not corrective) then Job himself would have been crushed by them. Instead, his experience turns out to be palliative, and restorative – he does quieten down in terms of his complains, but he rises with a new confidence. Here the reading of 42: 6 is important and there has been considerable philological change of direction recently on the ambiguous Hebrew here (see both Habel and Clines on this verse in [4] and [6]).  The problem with translating nhm as ‘repent’ is that with the preposition used in this verse it is better rendered with the sense of changing one’s mind about something – so ‘repent of my dust and ashes’ is better than ‘repent in dust and ashes’.  Similarly the verb m’s which has been translated ‘despise’ is now thought much more likely to adopt here its legal connotations and mean ‘retract’ (‘my case’).  So Job is not crushed – he simply retracts his case and moves on: I withdraw my case and leave my dust and ashes behind me. There is an interesting aspect to the question-form of the Answer and Job’s restoration as well.  As Goldingay puts it’ ‘Much of the time what we need (not what we think we need) is the capacity to live with the questions. At one level this is what God wants for Job.’[8]

(7) The eschatological context. Comparisons with Isaiah have already been noted, but are not essential to situate the prophetic, wisdom-poem of Job within the arc of theological history of Judaism (and its inheritor).  Stories around individual characters (Moses, Samson, David, Elijah, Jonah, Job, Hosea, …) take place within a much larger and longer arc of creation, rebellion, election, redemption, restoration, new-creation.  They are themes, within movements within a symphony, and as such give to and receive from their narrative context extra meaning and depth.  In particular they give and receive along the communication channels of purpose.  The purpose of humans, called and in-breathed with the ruach and pneuma of YHWH’s own spirit, and created in his image, is to participate in the continuity of creation’s story. Job is future-directed, not only for its protagonist, but for its readers as well.

[1] D. Robertson, The book of Job: a literary study. Soundings 1973, 56, 446–68.

[2] See D.J.A Clines, ‘Loin-girding and other male activities in the Book of Job’

[3] J.E. Hartley in The Book of Job, Ed. W.A.M. Beuken BETL 114

[4] D.J.A. Clines (2011) World Biblical Commentary on Job, Nashville: Thos. Nelson, p.1097

[5] E. Stump (2012), Wandering in Darkness, Oxford: OUP

[6] N.C. Habel (1985) The Book of Job, London: SCM Press

[7] C. Westermann Isaiah 40-66, The Old Testament Library, London: SCM Press 1969

[7] T.C.B. McLeish (2014) Faith and Wisdom in Science Oxford: OUP, Ch. 5

[8] J. Goldingay (2013) Job for Everyone, Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press p.196


More on Job – and a breakfast discussion in Ann Arbor

UmichIt will take a few weeks to recount  and pass on some experiences of the Faith and Wisdom summer, but one needs must refer on now.  I spent a fascinating weekend visiting my long time friend and collaborator Ron Larson of the Department of Chemical Engineering, University of Michigan at Ann Arbor (what a lovely, sylvan, name!) and of Knox Presbyterian Church of the same city.

Saturday morning Ron had gathered an ‘out for breakfast’ (bacon, two eggs over easy, hash browns) informal conversation of UoM faculty about the role of Christian faith in their life and work, and especially in science.  It was a stimulating and fascinating conversation.  One aspect new to me was the very wide range of experiences of being known (or not) as a believer in an academic setting.  Some found no issue, and were quite open about their faith (this tended to be the case in the faculty of medicine). Others felt that their intellectual ability would be called seriously into doubt, and promotion prospects dented, were they to ‘come out’ (some, but by no means all, in the science faculty).

But my task is made all the easier, as one participant (RJS) has blogged about the discussion here.  The writer has also commented previously on how to read Job, so we were especially happy to share a deep interest in that book, and its prescience for Biblical theology of the cosmos and our relation to it. I searched that whole blog for Job and found a collection of interesting articles here.

The main lessons seems to be not to project back New Testament notions into the thought world of Job or the writer of the book, and to realise that, as well as much else, this book is about living with questions, not insisting on easy answers.

Faith in Science Education – Wisdom in how we do it

Faith and Wisdom in Science – the blog did take a summer break.  But other things happened.  In particular I had the opportunity to write (at 24 hours notice) an opinion piece for The Guardian newspaper in the UK (published August 14th) on the importance of children experiencing open-ended experimental science while at school.  There is growing evidence that this is enormously beneficial to core science learning, but, as readers of Faith and Wisdom in Science will know, it also touches on a deeply theological nerve.  Becoming reconciled with nature means working with it and observing.  This is something that everyone can experience and enjoy.

The Guardian article as printed is here (it also made the weekly printed Guardian International, to which we have subscribed for years – I was delighted!). But I thought that the full original drafted version, before editor’s cuts, might be interesting to post.  So that follows.  The most important thing is that Job made the final cut!


Science is not just the preserve of stereotypical brainy boffins you see on TV. Speaking to the Times yesterday, head of the British Science Association Katherine Mathieson, said this public image was not helpful and that she’d prefer to “see a few years of genuine open-ended research by pupils, rather than fiddling around with beakers”. She also worries that science is not a topic of common conversation. Rightly so – if we can get our minds around Premier League strategy then complexity is not the issue.’

Mathieson is right to raise concerns. The ability of people to understand the world they live in increasingly depends on their understanding of scientific ideas. Science allows us to learn reliably about nature – if an experimental result does not support a specific idea, then the idea has to be rejected or modified and then tested again. For most people such understanding by imagination and experimentation comes through education. ​Great teachers are the driving force behind the UK’s position as a global scientific powerhouse.

However, overly-tight accountability measures, rapidly changing curricula and burdensome pupil progress monitoring are just some of the enormous pressures on schools that impede creating an environment in which tomorrow’s scientists can learn and grow. Teachers often have to carry out experiments in their own time and beyond the curriculum by joining schemes like our Partnership Grants.

In 2013, a report published by SCORE found that a worrying number of primary students were not experiencing a complete science education due to a lack of resources for practical work, with the average school having only 46% of the equipment needed. The UK is failing to create a scientifically informed society that can confidently hold science properly to account by engaging, enjoying and, yes, criticising it.

Children learn about music by trying their hand at composing a song or joining a jazz trio or string quartet. Others take GCSE Art, where we expect them to try out sketching and use watercolours, mixed-media or creative photography to learn about the subject. Even the most doting relative does not expect these creations to end up in a museum or concert hall, but what they teach our children about the artistic process is essential.

Science should be treated the same way. Humans have always been curious about the natural world and the stuff that makes it up. In the Book of Job, an ancient poem asks why the stars of the Pleiades are bound together, while those of Orion are scattered. Centuries before we formalised the scientific method, we had thoughtful and playful experiments with light, glass and water as well as astonishingly careful observations of the stars. People dreamed up imaginative theories of what might be going on up in rainbows and down inside liquids and solids. It wasn’t always right, but even now science can be a messy business on the path to truth. Why should things be different in 2017?

The Royal Society emphasises ‘experimental’ over ‘practical’ science, where curiosity should go beyond following a simple recipe and people should simply try something – a thoughtful way of looking for answers. We need to reverse recent trends and increase the amount of time and money invested in experimental and problem-solving work in science and mathematics education through access to adequately resourced laboratories and well-trained teachers. To support this activity in primary schools, Brian Cox, the Royal Society’s Professor for Public Engagement in Science, presents a series of video resources to increase teachers’ confidence with experimental science and relate the experiments to the real world.

Before you reach out for your Rousseaus to bash me over the head with, I want to reassure you that experimental science in education complements rather than replaces the learning of core scientific understanding. Sir John Holman found that investigative science improved attainment in core science exams, with greater effect for pupils in less privileged areas. There are other signs of new growth – the new Institute for Research in Schools is right now realising Mathieson’s vision of ‘genuine open-ended research by pupils’.

We currently have many examples of good practice at primary and secondary schools and colleges across the UK. Investing in experimental science in all our schools to help future generations make better sense of the world around them means that one day we will have confident opinions on scientific issues like we do on technical matters like Premier League team strategies.


The Book of Job and Science come alive on Stage!

Faith-In-The-Questions-poster-423x600Imagine the long river of longing, questioning, pain and triumph, that starts from the pen of the long lost author of the Book of Job, and flows to the present day, when human desire to see deeply into the structure of nature takes the form of ‘science’.  Both of the great wisdom poems in Job, the ‘Hymn to Wisdom’ of chapter 28 and the ‘Lord’s Answer’ of chapters 38-42 describe reaching out into the cosmos, and deep down into the structure of the Earth with the insight and imagination of mind and eye.  They also grasp the nettle of pain, of the frustration of incomprehension, especially in the face of the chaotic, the unpredictable, the seemingly purposeless.  This is also why science is also so very deeply human – all of life, hope and creativity is there.

Job on stage

Justin Butcher plays Job

Now imagine these two visions – the ancient poetic figure of Job, and that of a modern scientist facing the challenges of the unknown – brought into the same focus, the old longing to understand meeting the severe challenges of physics, mathematics and nature.  Job and his friends circle around each other, around the unanswered questions, and on a stage that circles itself amid a cosmic backdrop of the universe he longs to comprehend, including its chaotic and threatening aspects.


Job and friends 2

Job rails against his comforters



It was brilliant.  It worked. Job as scientist, Christian, and sufferer, right but also self-righteous.  Felix’ articulation of view of those for whom science is a threat, an inhuman desiccated exercise of the mind that dries up emotion and aesthetic.  And it sparked off wonderful questions and discussion for the panel of four scientists who are also Christians each evening.

Personally, working with Riding Lights and Nigel Forde has been inspiring.  To see some of the themes (and even some of the lines!) of Faith and Wisdom in Science woven into a vibrant dialogue between a modern day Job and his friends, has been a wondrous experience.

It left us all wanting to do more, to help the church embrace science as a gift of God, to support scientists in their calling, to appreciate the interplay of science and art in being human for everyone, to participate in the great work of healing our relationship with nature.

Look out for it later this year or next on a national tour!

Theatre, Science, the Book of Job – and Faith in the Questions


FaWis_450A play based on connections between the Book of Job and science!

This is going to be an exciting week (quite apart from a general election in the UK).  Financial support from the Durham-based Equipping Christian Leaders in an Age of Science project has allowed the development of a one-act play exploring the idea proposed in Faith and Wisdom in Science that the Old Testament Book of Job serves as a fundamental text from which we can trace the questions which today underpin the wonderful human cultural activity that we call ‘Science’.  In particular it takes the essential, and paradoxical, form of questions that is assumed by the ‘Lord’s Answer’ to Job in the Biblical book.

Faith-In-The-Questions-poster-423x600A group of us in York have been working with the well-known theatre company Riding Lights and their writer Nigel Forde on the play Counting the Clouds.  To find out more you will really have to get along to St. Michael-le-Belfrey church (hard by York Minster) at 7.30 pm on the evenings of Thursday, Friday or Saturday June 8th, 9th and 10th.  Suffice it to say that the afflicted yet faithful Job is, in the play, a contemporary scientists, and that one of his ‘comforters’ includes a hard-line humanities-trained clergyman for whom science is a spoiler, a destroyer of wonder, and a threat to his faith.  Both have things to learn.

On each evening, the play will be followed by a second hour of panel discussion between the audience and a group of scientists who are also Christians.  It’s not impossible that I will be among them, but so will Steve Smye OBE of Leeds University and the National Institute of Health Research, and others of wide and deep experience.

foi-logoThe event, Faith in the Questions, forms part of York’s current Festival of Ideas, in which there is lots more on art, literature, politics, science, theology and more to entertain, educate and inspire – so get up to York this week, join in the discussion, and experience Counting the Clouds!.

You can find more information on the event and booking here.



Re-embedding Science in the Human

logo-zwart-poThis title was the one given to me by my hosts in Maastricht this week for the Brightlands Campus spring Science Lecture.  The experience was  rich and fascinating one.

I have been fascinated for many years by the effectiveness of deep collaborations between industrial and university scientists, and have tried several experiments along those lines myself.  For ten years I and a team of physicists, chemists, engineers, mathematicians and computer scientists from six UK universities worked with our industrial counterparts in six global companies in a giant project to elucidate and innovate with the molecular rules that govern the connection between molecular structure of polymers and the flow of their melts.  A number of us currently run an industry-university PhD training centre in ‘Soft Matter and Functional Interfaces’ between the universities of Durham, Leeds and Edinburgh, and 24 companies in polymers, coatings, food and personal care.Print

The point here is emphatically not the usual ‘application of research’, or ‘public benefit of science’ stories.  Told and retold by government departments to justify science spending, these Sheherezade-like tales that are needed every day to keep science funding from being cut-off I have criticized as part of the cultural lack of understanding around science today, in Faith and Wisdom in Science.  No, the truth is that more intellectual traffic flows from industrial screen-shot-2016-01-22-at-8-22-45-amscience into academic in a healthy collaboration – for the industrial research digs deeper than a disconnected academic lab would do, driven by business need into the rich loam of the world’s material complexity. And here new phenomena are discovered. This has been my experience for 30 years of doing science.  The most satisfying fundamental pieces of science that I have bee involved with have all arisen from long-term industrial collaborations.

But the Maastricht folk have taken this to a new level and invested in a shared site – labs, computers, pilot-plants, … academic and industrial groups from several businesses sharing the same campus.  I was impressed!  Even more so that 3 or 4 times a year everyone is encouraged to come to hear an afternoon of two lectures.  One is from an early-career scientist from university or industry, the other from a more experienced scientists.  Topics are of general interest but usually scientific, so I was surprised and delighted when Brightlands asked me to talk on what is really a secular version of my thesis in Faith and Wisdom.

lettherebescienceThe point is that if science is to become recognised as a public and human good in a way that goes beyond the instrumental or the monster, to take two of the poles that Dave Hutchings and I describe in the new Let There Be Science, then the science-religion question needs to be defined anyway.  For it is the theological tradition that leads to a rediscovery of the human purpose for science, and its human value in reconciling our precarious condition in the world.

Question time was fascinating – and one young scientist asked if I were able to stay for the Dutch March for Science – an international event, or series of events, taking place yesterday to appeal for the central importance of science in the face of its political marginalisation, especially in the USA. March for_sciencedcIt’s a good point – science will become truly valued when the science community create other ways in to enjoy and contemplate science, as well as urging its vital role in establishing truth, and good policy.


I also sold out of an entire suitcase supply of both books!

Rather looking forward to going back there again next year, which I think is the plan.

The next scientific breakthrough could come from the history books

Faith and Wisdom in Science refers, within its chapter on the long history of science, to the remarkable 13th century scientific treatises of Robert Grosseteste.  This article, republished from TheConversationUK, says more about what we have learned from him over the last few years.

Giles Gasper, Durham University; Hannah Smithson, University of Oxford, and Tom McLeish, Durham University

The idea that science isn’t a process of constant progress might make some modern scientists feel a bit twitchy. Surely we know more now than we did 100 years ago? We’ve sequenced the genome, explored space and considerably lengthened the average human lifespan. We’ve invented aircraft, computers and nuclear energy. We’ve developed theories of relativity and quantum mechanics to explain how the universe works. The Conversation

However, treating the history of science as a linear story of progression doesn’t reflect wholly how ideas emerge and are adapted, forgotten, rediscovered or ignored. While we are happy with the notion that the arts can return to old ideas, for example in neoclassicism, this idea is not commonly recognised in science. Is this constraint really present in principle? Or is it more a comment on received practice or, worse, on the general ignorance of the scientific community of its own intellectual history?

For one thing, not all lines of scientific enquiry are pursued to conclusion. For example, a few years ago, historian of science Hasok Chang undertook a careful examination of notebooks from scientists working in the 19th century. He unearthed notes from experiments in electrochemistry whose results received no explanation at the time. After repeating the experiments himself, Chang showed the results still don’t have a full explanation today. These research programmes had not been completed, simply put to one side and forgotten.

New perspectives on old investigations might turn out to be promising routes to radical research. Most current research programmes represent attempts to make incremental advances, nurtured and supported by a conservative system of peer review. But the generation of really fresh ideas requires methods that don’t just rely on linear progression.

Sometimes this non-linearity comes from new experiments or theories. For example, Albert Einstein developed his theory of special relativity in 1905 from studying a series of thought experiments he had devised. The Nobel Prize-winning Dutch physicist Heike Kamerlingh Onnes’s experimental prowess while studying how metals behaved at very low temperatures led to his discovery of superconductivity. But looping back into forgotten scientific history might also provide an alternative, regenerative way of thinking that doesn’t rely on what has come immediately before it.

Collaborating with an international team of colleagues, we have taken this hypothesis further by bringing scientists into close contact with scientific treatises from the early 13th century. The treatises were composed by the English polymath Robert Grosseteste – who later became Bishop of Lincoln – between 1195 and 1230. They cover a wide range of topics we would recognise as key to modern physics, including sound, light, colour, comets, the planets, the origin of the cosmos and more.

Medieval scholar.

We have worked with paleographers (handwriting experts) and Latinists to decipher Grosseteste’s manuscripts, and with philosophers, theologians, historians and scientists to provide intellectual interpretation and context to his work. As a result, we’ve discovered that scientific and mathematical minds today still resonate with Grosseteste’s deeply physical and structured thinking.

Our first intuition and hope was that the scientists might bring a new analytic perspective to these very technical texts. And so it proved: the deep mathematical structure of a small treatise on colour, the De colore, was shown to describe what we would now call a three-dimensional abstract co-ordinate space for colour.

But more was true. During the examination of each treatise, at some point one of the group would say: “Did anyone ever try doing …?” or “What would happen if we followed through with this calculation, supposing he meant …”. Responding to this thinker from eight centuries ago has, to our delight and surprise, inspired new scientific work of a rather fresh cut. It isn’t connected in a linear way to current research programmes, but sheds light on them from new directions.

Take, for example, Grosseteste’s application of his colour theory to the rainbow, carried out in his final treatise. In explaining the differences of colours between and within rainbows on three axes related to his colour theory, Grosseteste put forward the basis of a coordinate system for colour embedded in nature.

It was only by looking at his discussion of rainbows recreated by modern physics that we could interpret his colour qualities in terms we use today. It’s the medieval equivalent of the way televisions combine coloured light, but written in the clouds with sunlight rather than on flat screens with liquid crystal displays. The finding also resonates with open research questions on why some colours seem closer to others in our perception.

One way of looking at the creative processes at work in this scientific dialogue with the 13th century is that it is just the kind of neoclassical (or neomedieval) science that some have assumed is impossible. We’ve found scientific ideas addressing current thinking in fresh ways in every treatise by Grosseteste we’ve examined so far, proving it’s not exceptional.

History is important. And through our collaboration through time with Grosseteste, we’ve shown it can undermine some of the brittle narratives told about modern science. We may be alone in space with our thoughts of communicating with the intelligence of other civilisations, but we need not be alone in time.

Giles Gasper, Senior Lecturer in Medieval History, Durham University; Hannah Smithson, Associate Professor in Experimental Psychology (Perception), University of Oxford, and Tom McLeish, Professor of Physics and former Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Research, Durham University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.