A Medieval Multiverse
By Tom C. McLeish
Nature, Vol. 507 (2014)
Introduction: Earlier this year we submitted an unusual paper to a scientific journal. What is unusual about it is not the topic — computations of how interactions between light and matter in the primordial Universe affected large-scale cosmic structures — but what inspired it. The paper draws on ideas in a medieval manuscript by the thirteenth-century English scholar Robert Grosseteste.
De Luce (On Light), written in 1225 in Latin and dense with mathematical thinking, explores the nature of matter and the cosmos. Four centuries before Isaac Newton proposed gravity and seven centuries before the Big Bang theory, Grosseteste describes the birth of the Universe in an explosion and the crystallization of matter to form stars and planets in a set of nested spheres around Earth.
To our knowledge, De Luce is the first attempt to describe the heavens and Earth using a single set of physical laws. Implying, probably unrealized by its author, a family of ordered universes in an ocean of disordered ones, the physics resembles the modern ‘multiverse’ concept.
Grosseteste’s treatise was translated and interpreted by us as part of an interdisciplinary project led by Durham University, UK, that includes Latinists, philologists, medieval historians, physicists and cosmologists. Our experience shows how science and humanities scholars working together can gain fresh perspectives in both fields. And Grosseteste’s thesis demonstrates how advanced natural philosophy was in the thirteenth century — it was no dark age.