Medieval Meets Modern Cosmology at Harvard

In one of my roles, I am co-investigator for the ‘Ordered Universe’ project, an interdisciplinary collaboration that brings scientists and medieval scholars together in the study of the innovative science of the 13th century. I am also lucky enough to chair the Harvard-UK Knox Fellowship Committee, which awards 2-year postgraduate fellowships to Harvard across all subjects. Once a year I get to visit the new (and not so new) fellows at Harvard in rather more relaxed settings than their London interview.

Harvard Yard was looking rather gorgeous in its fall colours:

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While in town, I also went to see some astronomers: the Harvard-Smithsonian Astrophysics lab holds a Thursday lunchtime bag lunch seminar where four people give short talks. The seminars are well-attended by about 100 astronomers from all over Boston.

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The Harvard-Smithsonian lunchtime seminar in full swing with a talk on 21st century astrophysics, following Tom’s talk on 13th century cosmology. Note that the scientists are still there.

On this occasion one talk (mine) was on a rather old (c. 1224) theory of a Big Bang origin of the cosmos, contained in Robert Grosseteste’s treatise De luce (On light). For a lecture by a real cosmologist on this topic see Durham astronomer Richard Bower’s talk here. Grosseteste does an extraordinary thing in the De luce, using Aristotelian physics to counter Aristotle’s belief that the universe could have no temporal beginning. Instead, Grosseteste supposes that a point of light expands into a giant sphere, ‘the size of the world machine’, taking matter with it, until it can be rarefied no further. Following that the light, in new guise, propagates inward, forming the nested planetary spheres as it goes. It is a marvellously mathematical theory of how a medieval geocentric cosmos might have come into being, and as an example of the scientific imagination, is hard to better.

The Harvard cosmologists were fascinated to hear about some of the medieval history of their subject, and had interesting questions about the scientific community then, and the way that written records were disseminated.

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Prof Owen Gingerich with Flamsteed’s star catalogue

Later that afternoon I had the immense privilege of visiting the one-man Harvard institution that is Professor Owen Gingerich. He owns a personal collection of early modern astronomical texts, and some earlier manuscripts as well. Here is Owen with a prized member of his collection – one of the few surviving copies of first Astronomer Royal John Flamsteed’s star catalog, edited by Edmond Halley, but most copies destroyed by Flamsteed. This, surviving, copy is heavily redacted in Flamsteed’s hand (can you make out the falsum est on the bottom corner?) ! Owen has also spoken and written extensively on the positive relationship of science and Christian faith. He tells his story on the Biologos site here. Owen wrote a wonderful ‘blurb’ for my book with Dave Hutchings, Let There Be Science, which puts the Faith and Wisdom in Science ideas and message into language suitable for high school pupils .

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Owen wrote of Let There Be Science:

“How doe scientists interact with the Cosmos as God’s creation? Here is an unexpected interlacing of fascinating science stories with an even larger framework of Biblical understanding. A really thoughtful and wide-ranging encounter.”

Behind this actually lies a lengthy exchange Dave and I had with him on the historical importance (or otherwise) of the brightnesses of Mercury and Venus, before telescopic observations of them!

The final astronomical joy was a meeting with leaders of the Harvard Black Hole Project, partially funded through the John Templeton Foundation, of which I am currently a trustee. Philosopher and historian of science Peter Galison gave me a signed copy of the ground-breaking short-wave radio image from the Event Horizon Telescope – capturing the monster black hole at the heart of active galaxy M87 (below).

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What would Robert Grosseteste have thought about the notion of a Black Hole, on the one hand a perfectly singular point such as he imagined at the patio-temporal beginning of his own cosmology, but on the other hand a place where all information, all logos, is lost forever (probably … but that is another story!)?

(Blog adapted from one written for the Ordered Universe project blog)

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