A multiverse model of the Universe from 800 years ago

Bishop Robert Grosseteste, detail of a window on the South transept Westernmost. St Paul’s Parish Church, Morton, Near Gainsborough. 1896

Robert Grosseteste (ca. 1168–1253), Bishop of Lincoln from 1235 to 1253, was one of the most prominent and remarkable figures in thirteenth-century English intellectual life. His views on light and matter were some 800 years in advance of his time.

If a single leitmotif runs through Grosseteste’s works, it is that of light. The notion of light occupies a prominent place in Grosseteste’s commentaries on the Bible, in his account of sense perception and the relation of body and soul, in his illuminationist theory of knowledge, in his account of the origin and nature of the physical world, and, of course, in his writings on optics. 


His treatise De Luce (meaning “Concerning Light”), written in 1225, describes a Universe created via a Big Bang-like explosion of light before forming into a series of nine celestial spheres.

Past Horizons:

The Ordered Universe Project, which brings together physicists, psychologists, cosmologists, Latin experts and medieval historians, has been studying the texts of Robert Grosseteste, one-time Bishop of Lincoln. The team created a fresh Latin translation, aided by other experts with knowledge of the medieval mindset and its context, before applying modern mathematical and computational techniques to Grosseteste’s equations. ….

Dr Giles Gasper, the Ordered Universe Project’s Principal Investigator and Associate Director of Durham University’s Institute of Medieval and Early Modern Studies, said: “De Luce is the earliest known attempt to describe the Universe using a coherent set of physical laws, centuries before Sir Isaac Newton.

“It proposes that the same physics of light and matter, which explain the solidity of ordinary objects, could be applied to the cosmos as a whole. In doing so it also suggests, although this was probably not apparent to Grosseteste at the time, a series of ordered universes reminiscent of the modern “multiverse” concept.

“Grosseteste’s calculations are very consistent and precise. Had he had access to modern calculus and computing methods, he surely would have used them, so that is what the team has done.”

Richard G. Bower, Tom C. B. McLeish, Brian K. Tanner, Hannah E. Smithson , Cecilia Panti, Neil Lewis, Giles E. M. Gasper, A Medieval Multiverse: Mathematical Modelling of the 13th Century Universe of Robert Grosseteste, Royal Society Journal, Proceedings of the Royal Society A, arXiv:1403.0769

Abstract: In his treatise on light, written in about 1225, Robert Grosseteste describes a cosmological model in which the Universe is created in a big-bang like explosion and subsequent condensation. He postulates that the fundamental coupling of light and matter gives rises to the material body of the entire cosmos. Expansion is arrested when matter reaches a minimum density and subsequent emission of light from the outer region leads to compression and rarefaction of the inner bodily mass so as to create nine celestial spheres, with an imperfect residual core. In this paper we reformulate the Latin description in terms of a modern mathematical model. The equations which describe the coupling of light and matter are solved numerically, subject to initial conditions and critical criteria consistent with the text. Formation of a universe with a non-infinite number of perfected spheres is extremely sensitive to the initial conditions, the intensity of the light and the transparency of these spheres. In this “medieval multiverse”, only a small range of opacity and initial density profiles lead to a stable universe with nine perfected spheres. As in current cosmological thinking, the existence of Grosseteste’s universe relies on a very special combination of fundamental parameters.

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