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No. 3028:
Robert Grosseteste's Big Bang

by Andrew Boyd

Today, a medieval big bang. The University of Houston presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

To fully appreciate today's story we need to transport ourselves back in time to thirteenth century England. Universities were just gaining a foothold. Formal education was largely through the church. Newton's universal law of gravitation lay some 400 years in the future. The thought that math could be used to describe how the world worked was all but unimaginable. The universe was in God's hands, and knowledge of its workings could only be found by reflection on His revealed word.

Which is why the work of Robert Grosseteste is so remarkable. Grosseteste's life spanned the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries. He lived a scholarly life as he rose to become a church Bishop. And in one of his best known works, On Light, Grosseteste proffers his own surprisingly mathematical account of the creation. It starts with a big bang.

Bishop Robert Grosseteste, detail of a window on the South transept Westernmost. St Paul's Parish Church, Morton, Near Gainsborough. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Gordon Plumb

He didn't actually write down equations. Calculus hadn't been invented. But Grosseteste's grasp of math was rare for the time, and the physical laws he proposed were expressed clearly in words, making it possible to translate his ideas into modern equations. And in 2014 an interdisciplinary group of researchers did just that. Their work appeared in the prestigious Proceedings of the Royal Society.

Grosseteste's universe is formed from light; light expanding outward from a central source. The light gets less and less dense until it reaches a state of perfection. It then crystallizes to form matter, which in turn falls back toward the light's source while creating the universe along the way. Just like modern big bang theories, numerical constants in Grosseteste's model either lead to a stable universe or something that falls apart. The details are intriguing.

3D depiction of the Big Bang. Photo Credit: NASA/JPL

So where does Grosseteste's work fit in the lineage of the big bang theory as we know it today? Consider the foundation upon which it was built. While modern cosmologists take their cue from scientific observations about the expanding universe, we need look no further than the first few sentences of the Old Testament to find Grosseteste's inspiration:

In the beginning ' God created the heavens and the earth, and the earth was without form or shape, with darkness over the abyss and a mighty wind sweeping over the waters. Then God said: Let there be light, and there was light.

Grosseteste wasn't breaking from scripture, he was building on it, explaining how the universe took form from light. And the details of his work, while surprisingly similar in spirit to today's theories, are all off. As such, it would be hard to make a case Grosseteste's work is a true forebear of the big bang theory.

But scholarly research reveals a keen mind wrapped in a scholastic web; a saintly soul ahead of his time who envisioned a universe shaped not only by God, but by mathematics. 

I'm Andy Boyd at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

For a related episode, see GROSSETESTE AND BACON

T. McLeish et. al. (2014). 'A Medieval Multiverse.' Nature. 507, pp. 161-163. See also the Nature website: Accessed October 27, 2015.

R. Bower. et. al. (2014). 'A Medieval Multiverse?: Mathematical Modelling of the Thirteenth Century Universe of Robert Grosseteste.' Proceedings of the Royal Society A. 470:2167. See the Royal Society Publishing website: Accessed October 27, 2015.

Robert Grosseteste. From the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy web-site: Accessed October 27, 2015.

This episode was first aired on October 29, 2015