This is a guest blog by Dr Giles Gasper, University of Durham, Principal Investigator for AHRC Research Network ‘The Ordered Universe’ Project. A short film about ‘The Ordered Universe’ is available to watch here.

Taking part in the inaugural UK Festival of the Humanities Being Human with the Ordered Universe research project, gave us a wonderful opportunity to present and reflect on our activities, methods and premises. To work with members of the public, to learn about their perceptions of our subjects, and to learn from their perspectives became a creative and collaborative process in its own right.

The Ordered Universe is dedicated to the scientific treatises of Robert Grosseteste (c.1170-1253). These texts, written in a taut, dense and technical Latin, with an equally taut and complex mathematical framework, comprise an extraordinary series of explorations of natural phenomena. We spent a day in the amazing surroundings of Durham Cathedral working with members of the public to explore the world of medieval science through Grosseteste’s eyes (and we were fully booked!). Our collaboration relies on two things: disciplinary expertise, and humility to engage with, on the one hand, master thinker from the past and, on the other hand, each other as we encounter different ways of interpreting the world. In the case of the Ordered Universe, we prepare and interpret the texts, moving from the medieval manuscript, to a Latin edition, to English translation and then mutually informing layers of commentary. Historical and intellectual context are crucial to this process, we need to appreciate what was radical and what traditions Grosseteste worked in, followed and challenged. Equally crucial is the scientific analysis – when an experiment is described is it plausible, what does Grosseteste observe and how is that best rendered for a modern reader.

Being Human Fest 2

The discussions of colour, light, sound and the rainbow formed the basis of joint reading sessions with team leaders and participants. A particular highlight was the session run by Brian Tanner on reconstructing and testing Grosseteste’s experiments. With a kit of pencils, rulers, ‘hot-lips’ mirrors and other readily available equipment, the textual reading came to life in a different form. The final part of the day showed the pilot version of The Medieval Cosmos and a summary from science journalist Michael Brooks.


The whole team learnt a lot – we had several great suggestions for alternative translations, and we thoroughly enjoyed the experience of giving to others our sense of wonder at our subjects, the fun and stimulation of working together, and the importance of the past to the present, and the present to the past. We were especially pleased that the participants shared these feelings:

‘I have learnt a great deal about medieval science and my respect has greatly increased: not all medieval thinkers worried about angels on a pinhead.’

‘Had no idea that scientists and historians co-operated in joint studies. Impressed by the simplicity of the ‘experiments’ to demonstrate (or disprove) Grosseteste’s theories – that could be conducted by a ‘scratch’ audience.’

‘Some of Grosseteste’s thinking is so contemporary! That is the first recognition a new person to this feels, but then he overlays over theory and is unlike us!’

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This is one of a series of guest blog posts written by AHRC Science in Culture Theme Award Holders. The Science in Culture Theme is a key area of AHRC Funding and supports projects committed to developing reciprocal relationships between scientists and arts and humanities researchers. More information about ‘The Ordered Universe’ project and associated ‘The Scientific Works of Robert Grosseteste: Lost Legacies and the Living Past’ is available here.

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