The Ordered Universe Project - Robert Grosseteste
The Ordered Universe Project is an interdisciplinary approach to re-editing and translating the scientific works of Robert Grosseteste (ca. 1170 – 1253), Bishop of Lincoln, politician, philosopher, theologian and natural philosopher. He was a pioneer of the scientific method and his scientific output includes treatises on light, cosmology, colour, rainbows and the generation of sound. The project brings together historians, linguists and scientists for an interdisciplinary reading of the original Latin.
This unusual approach has proven mutually beneficial for the individual disciplines, and demanding consistency across the historical, linguistic and scientific dimensions can actually be powerfully predictive. For instance, in his treatise on colour Grosseteste argues that colour space is three-dimensional (in remarkable agreement with modern ideas of RGB-perception) and he therefore identifies 7 colour directions in which one may move away from whiteness (which is positioned at one corner of a cube, moving towards any of the remaining seven), and similarly for blackness. However, medieval sources stated that there are therefore 9 different colours. The interdisciplinary approach uncovered the source of this discrepancy. Grosseteste as one of the most informed intellectuals of his time likely read recent Arabic philosophical treatises and must have written 14 in Arabic numerals; however, since these were not more widely known at the time, they were likely misread as IX=9 in Roman numerals in subsequent copying processes. This allowed the group to predict that earlier versions of the manuscript must instead have Arabic 14; such an earlier manuscript has subsequently indeed been found in Madrid and was confirmed to contain 14 rather than IX in the crucial sentence. This is a beautiful and surprisingly powerful example of the benefits of an interdisciplinary approach illuminating scientific, historical and linguistic aspects at the same time.
Alcuin of York
Alcuin of York taught at the York cathedral school before being summoned to Charlemagne's court as chief educational advisor and architect of the Carolingian renaissance. Alcuin compiled a now famous collection of mathematical puzzles, including the river crossing problem of the wolf, the sheep and the cabbage. Internationally distinguished Alcuin scholar Mary Garrison at the University of York got me interested in these puzzles and we did a number of joint public engagement events for Pint of Science and the York Festival of Ideas. I am also using some of the puzzles in teaching, in particular in computer/algorithmic solutions to mathematical problems, and I have written for the Conversation about some of the puzzles.