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27 March 2014

The Big Bang theory is not as modern as you think

We have fooled ourselves into thinking that modern science began with Newton but Grosseteste wrote his treatise in 1225.

By Michael Brooks

The first principle of science, the physicist Richard Feynman once said, is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool. This month, two very different publications illustrated the importance of Feynman’s point.

The first was a report by the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) called Engineering Our Future. This repeated the common complaint that Britain faces a future skills crunch and needs to train more scientists, engineers and mathematicians.

It is ironic that anyone should have to point out the law of supply and demand to the CBI, which seems to have fooled itself into thinking that government-subsidised training is the answer. The reality is that young people aren’t tempted by poorly paid, unrewarding positions. If filling these roles matters so much, making wages in the sector more competitive would surely be more effective (though it might hurt profits).

The second report, which was far more interesting, illustrated why we should let students study whatever they find engaging. It came from a project, based at Durham University, analysing the writings of Bishop Robert Grosseteste.

Grosseteste wrote the treatise De Luce (“on light”) in 1225. It seems to be the first attempt to apply a set of laws – the laws of physics – to describe the structure of the known universe. Grosseteste postulated, centuries before Newton, that light’s interaction with matter is central to giving substance to things and he used sophisticated (for his time) mathematical arguments to describe how light fills space. He didn’t stop there: he went on to apply his theories to the creation of the universe.

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Grosseteste suggested that an explosion of primordial light caused the universe to expand into a huge sphere, with the expansion gradually reducing the density of matter in the universe. As the Durham scholars have pointed out, it seems that the basic elements of our cherished Big Bang theory have been around for almost eight centuries.

Analysing Grosseteste’s work required collaboration between Latinists, philologists, medieval historians, physicists and cosmologists – illustrating that science training is not the only source of intellectual progress.

Furthermore, the project demonstrated how effectively we have fooled ourselves into thinking that modern science began with Newton. On the contrary, even through the so-called Dark Ages, human beings have always been inquisitive, deductive and skilled at using their observational powers to advance their understanding of nature and science.

The project highlighted the value of intellectual curiosity and creative flair. These may even be more valuable than scientific training. Looking back to the CBI report, perhaps we don’t need more science-themed education but a drive for schools to nurture “soft skills” such as critical thinking and collaboration alongside pupils’ formal training. Then, wherever students end up, they will thrive.

The CBI has also convinced itself that Britain’s prosperity lies in tempting people into narrow science and technology careers. Yet the best opportunities often come when disciplines are crossed.

Take the British film industry. Here we have artists, scientists, programmers and cinematographers working together to create something that reflects our humanity – and producing multimillion-pound profits, too.

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