Mathematics and natural philosophy: Robert G socks it to GG

In my recent demolition of Mario Livio’s very pretentious Galileo and the Science Deniers I very strongly criticised Livio’s repeated claims, based on Galileo’s notorious Il Saggiatore quote on the two books, that Galileo was somehow revolutionary in introducing mathematics into the study of science. I pointed out that by the time Galileo wrote his book this had actually been normal practice for a long time and far from being revolutionary the quote was actually a common place.

Last night whilst reading my current bedtime volume, A Mark Smith’s excellent From Sight to Light: The Passage from Ancient to Modern Optics,(University of Chicago Press, 2015) I came across a wonderfully appropriate quote on the topic from Robert Grosseteste (c.1175–1253). For those that don’t know Grosseteste was an English cleric who taught at Oxford University and who became Bishop of Lincoln. He played an important and highly influential role in medieval science, particularly in helping to establish optics as a central subject in the medieval university curriculum.

800px-Grosseteste_bishop

An early 14th-century portrait of Grosseteste Source: Wikimedia Commons

Of course, this is problematic for Livio, who firmly labelled the Catholic Church as anti-science and who doesn’t think there was any medieval science, remember that wonderfully wrong quote:

Galileo introduced the revolutionary departure from the medieval, ludicrous notion that everything worth knowing was already known.

If this were true then medieval science would be an oxymoron but unfortunately for Livio’s historical phantasy there was medieval science and Grosseteste was one of its major figure. If you want to know more about Grosseteste then I recommend the Ordered Universe website set up by the team from Durham University led by Giles Gasper, Hannah Smithson and  Tom McLeish

I already knew of Grosseteste’s attitude towards natural philosophy and mathematics but didn’t have a suitable quote to hand, so didn’t mention it in my review. Now I do have one. Let us first remind ourselves what Galileo actually said in Il Saggiatore:

Philosophy [i.e. natural philosophy] is written in this grand book — I mean the Universe — which stands continually open to our gaze, but it cannot be understood unless one first learns to comprehend the language and interpret the characters in which it is written. It is written in the language of mathematics, and its characters are triangles, circles, and other geometrical figures, without which it is humanly impossible to understand a single word of it; without these, one is wandering around in a dark labyrinth.

And now what Grosseteste wrote four hundred years earlier in his De lineis, angulis et figuris (On lines, angles and figures) between 1220 and 1235:

“…a consideration of lines, angles and fugures is of the greatest utility because it is impossible to gain a knowledge of natural philosophy without them…for all causes of natural effects must be expressed by means of lines, angles and figures”

Remarkably similar is it not!

 

 

 

 

3 Comments

Filed under History of Mathematics, History of science, Mediaeval Science

3 responses to “Mathematics and natural philosophy: Robert G socks it to GG

  1. tcbmcleish

    For those interested, the Ordered Universe project is an AHRC (UK) funded collaboration of the Universities of Durham, Oxford and York together with an international consortium of scholars and scientists working on the mathematical and physical content of medieval science. It has also been inspired to produce a series of new, contemporary scientific research published in current top science journals, and catalysed by Grosseteste’s 13th century writings on light, colour, sound, the rainbow and the spheres. Website

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