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.

‘Faith & Wisdom in’, and ‘Let There Be’ Science – go West: Lent Sermons, Pentecostal Theology, a Fallen world and Sacred Nature

lettherebescienceIt sounded like a good idea at the time … invitations to talk about the ideas in Faith and Wisdom in Science and the new, broader readership, Let There Be Science in Oxford, Malvern, Exeter and Bristol.  Joining them all up would be efficient, wouldn’t it? A good use of time?  Well it was marvellous, but it WAS exhausting!  What made it so encouraging was the deep, broad and insightful questions at each place.  There is a huge thirst in the church, across denominations and styles of theology and worship, to grasp a positive understanding of science as God’s gift, to use for a purpose, and to discard once and for all the pernicious ‘alternative fact’ that science and Christian belief are in conflict!

The long week opened with the start of a Lenten Evensong series on ‘New Reformations’ at St. Mary’s Church , Warwick.  Vicar Vaughan Roberts had spotted me on the web (!) and thought that the ideas looked interesting.  The link to the sermon is here, but the open Q&A afterwards was especially precious. One I recall especially asked why there was not more of an intelligent, Christian voice in the media, refuting the standard and supercilious conflict thesis.  The questioner had a point – and half of the answer is that Christians in scientific positions are just not speaking loudly enough.  Corporately, the Church needs to acquire a voice on science as gift too.  But then that is what the talks, books, and projects like Equipping Christian Leaders in an Age of Science are all about.

Next stop Elim Pentecostal Theological College – Regents College in Malvern. To my eternal shame I had not credited the Pentecostal movement with perhaps the deepest of theological traditions.  This visit proved me wrong.  A nuanced and thoughtful reception of a Faith and Wisdom talk – with a LOT on Job was very thought-provoking (and they bought all the books, necessitating a rush-delivery for Bristol – no chance for Exeter the next day!). Every theological audience I engage with reminds me that we need to think afresh about the Fall in a way consistent with the Genesis, and NT narratives, as well as what we learn from science about the history of the universe.

ExeterCathedralExeter Cathedral is launching a series of talks on Science and Faith funded through the Durham Scientists in Congregations initiative. I opened the series with The Continuing Dance of Science and Religion (now on YouTube) (not really my title – as some readers know I’m more for moving in for the embrace). Again a moving series of questions.  One mentioned the problem of young earth creationism.  Although normally reticent about this, and keen not to offend, I am increasingly persuaded that this is part of the church’s problem – we have failed to call out this lie.  It does untold damage within the church (young people forced into unbearable cognitive dissonance between their doctrinaire churches and the science that they love), and outside (anyone who is made to think that they have to swallow a literal 6-day creation in order to be a Christian is not going to think twice if they have any notion of evidence-based thinking).  Enough is enough.  I called on the Bishops to make a public and clear stand.  Heresies are wrong teachings that prevent people entering the Kingdom, and this is clearly a teaching that does just that.  Not in accord with an authoritative and respectful view of scripture, nor of Christian teaching, nor with the whole of God’s gift of science.  That got a round of applause!

Final stop Bristol Christians in Science – talk with slides available here, along with others in the series.  A powerful question on how to make this message with theological roots in Wisdom, Book of Job, Reconciliation and Healing accessible to a secular world.  That is of course the entire task of getting the ‘mising’ narrative of science as the search for wisdom and healing of our relationship with the world, heard broadly.  But starting with the Church is no bad place.  On the other hand, Dave and I were clear in the writing of Let There Be Science that we wanted this to be what moderate secular scientists needed and wanted to hear to explain to others how deeply and naturally human science is.  Several of the positive blurbs are from just those people.  Like all the truest Christian messages, they are welcomed by the world when they are recognised as the water in the desert that is so needed.