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Using Modern HPC to Engineer a Medieval Universe

ordered universe

In the early 13th century Robert Grosseteste composed De luce, his treatise on light, a work which arguably holds the spark of an idea that would, 796 years later, turn into the Big Bang Theory. Using techniques that were revolutionary for his time, Robert Grosseteste pulled together research to describe what he believed to be the known universe in 1255. But what did it look like? The Ordered Universe, a global research project now in its eleventh year, is a radical collaboration between humanities and modern experimental and scientific methodologies bringing Robert’s writings to life. They explored his treatise and, using supercomputing techniques, simulated how the universe would have looked according to Grossteste’s research.

Giles Gasper

Giles Gasper

Professor, Department of History, Durham University

“Science in the time of the 12th and 13th centuries was very different from science today,” says Giles Gasper, Professor in the Department of History at Durham University, “In Robert’s day science and theology were deeply intertwined. Astronomy and physics easily sat alongside philosophy and astrology. The universe of Grosseteste’s time wasn’t about the chaos of the cosmic web, dark energy, and dark matter that pre-occupies astronomers today. Rather, it focussed on the order and perfect spheres of the planets, sun, and moon; contrasting their unchanging motion with the disorder and imperfect mixture of earth, air, fire, and water in the human world.”

400 years before the telescope would be invented, Robert Grosseteste began to develop methods that would form the path to modern scientific thinking. “Robert’s treatises were about bringing known research together and from that developing the ideas further,” Giles continued. “He was inspired by the rediscovered works of Aristotle and Arabic scholars and took their ideas on how light interacts with matter to the next level to describe what he believed was our universe.”

Richard Bower

Richard Bower

Professor of Physics, Durham University

But in order to visualize his version of the universe it would take several hundred centuries of progress. Richard Bower, Professor of Physics at Durham University, joined the project to take Robert’s descriptions and translate them into a working model. “When you first look at Robert’s writing you think it’s gibberish. But for Robert that ‘gibberish’ was his highly descriptive way of giving modern scientists mathematical equations – which is how we describe the universe today. My job on this project was to tease out those equations and then apply them utilizing the techniques we’ve developed in building universes on supercomputers.”

Richard normally works with the COSMA HPC cluster at DiRAC to build his universes, but for building Grosseteste’s it was less about computing power and more about the methodology behind it. “One of the methods I applied to Robert’s work was smooth-particle hydrodynamics (SPH). This computational method basically quantified the interaction of light and matter. In our modern understanding of the universe we have three dimensions and three forms of matter. However, Robert’s universe consists of nine perfect celestial spheres. To achieve his model, I slowly had to strip the knowledge back from what we do today on COSMA to what was known over 750 years ago! This was both interesting and frustrating. For example, when working with a spherical model I had to contend with unstable numerical schemes as well as study Robert’s knowledge of geometry. But in seeing how his ideas played out we can almost see a path of how we got from Grosseteste in 1255 to our knowledge of the universe in 2021.”


The Ordered Universe published their findings in the Royal Society Journal, simulating how Grosseteste’s nine celestial spheres would form and function according to his research. The team also noted that Grosseteste and his medieval contemporaries were perfectly familiar with the possibility of multiple universes, or multiverse theory. “Thanks to Robert’s process of bringing together research from the ancient world into his own he ended with a 10th sphere where unperfected elements reside – the human world, composed of four sub-spheres of fire, air, water, and earth,” said Richard. Moreover, when the 10th sphere was created in the simulations, the models began to act in ways that closely parallel contemporary cosmological discussion.


“There is so much to Robert’s writings,” said Giles, “The Ordered Universe project has allowed us the opportunity to explore things like simulating his universe thanks the collaboration of medievalists, linguists, scientists and so many others. I look forward to seeing what he will teach us next.”

Project Links:

The Ordered Universe

Paper PDF: A Medieval Multiverse?: Mathematical Modelling of the Thirteenth Century Universe of Robert Grosseteste

Cristin Merritt, SC21 Inclusivity Liaison for Communications

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