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Nature offers a feature on a mediaeval concept of the multiverse


Everything old is new again?

File:Grosseteste bishop.jpg
Robert Grossteste, 13th c.

Actually, the evidence presented, that Grosseteste thought that way, is pretty weak:

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.

To assess the range of possible solutions to these novel equations, and out of curiosity, Durham cosmologist Richard Bower then computed the space of possible medieval universes by varying the values of four parameters: the gradient of the initial ‘Big Bang’ matter distribution, the coupling strength of light and matter, the opacity of impure matter and the transparency of the perfected spheres.

A rich set of solutions emerged. A narrow set of parameters did indeed produce the series of celestial perfected spheres and, within the Moon’s orbit, a further four spheres corresponding to fire, air, water and earth — as the medieval world view demanded. But most choices of the four parameters yielded no spheres, or a disordered mess of hundreds of concentric spheres with no radial pattern to their densities. Other possible model universes contained infinite numbers of spheres, some with unbounded density. The project had unwittingly stumbled on a medieval multiverse.

In short, the mediaeval author didn’t think that, but the modern authors, sensing the concept’s trendiness, do.

Their piece is, however, useful for the way in which it shows that mediaeval thinkers were refining their ideas of the laws of physics:

Grosseteste’s De Luce, available in English since the 1940s, opens by addressing a problem with classical atomism: why, if atoms are point-like, do materials have volume? Light is discussed as a medium for filling space. Grosseteste’s recognition that matter’s bulk and bulk stability requires subtle explanation was impressive. Even more intriguing was his use of mathematics to illuminate his physics.

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