Lessons from Medieval Science, and Science-Theology Today

Professor Tom McLeish FRS
Tuesday, 26 October 2021 - 7:00pm

Although governments claim to ‘follow the science’, the activity we call ‘science’ and the community of ‘scientists’ can still seem strange and remote to most people.  There is also a commonly-repeated idea that science is fundamentally opposed to religious faith.  We might learn better ways of thinking about science by studying scientific thinking, and its context, from a time when it was much more integrated into learning and thought, in both these senses.

Tom McLeish reports on a remarkable collaboration between scientists, medieval scholars, and theologians.  Together these unusual collaborators are exploring the fascinating, perceptive, and surprisingly mathematical, work on light, colour and cosmology in the 1220s by Oxford master Robert Grosseteste; before he became Bishop of Lincoln in 1235.

The project has also stimulated new scientific research today, and helped explore new ways of thinking about the relationship between science and Christian faith.  In particular, it helps re-thinking away from the artificial ‘conflict narrative’ of faith and science (‘science is a threat’) to one that locates the pursuit of science at the heart of a Biblical concept of human action and response to Creation (‘science is a gift’).  In turn, this new narrative not only has the power to transform the relation of the Church with science, but informs a work of mission and service that helps to sustain a political ‘following the science’ in healthy directions, rather than dangerous ones. 


About the speaker

Tom McLeish, FRS, is Professor of Natural Philosophy in the Department of Physics at the University of York, England, and is also affiliated to the University’s Centre for Medieval Studies and Humanities Research Centre.

His scientific research in ‘soft matter and biological physics,’ draws on collaboration with chemists, engineers, and biologists to study relationships between molecular structure and emergent material properties, recognized by major awards in the USA and Europe.  He currently leads the UK ‘Physics of Life’ network, and holds a 5-year personal research fellowship focusing on the physics of protein signaling and the self-assembly of silk fibres.

Other academic interests include the framing of science, theology, society and history, and the theory of creativity in art and science, leading to the recent books Faith and Wisdom in Science (OUP 2014) and The Poetry and Music of Science (OUP 2019).  He co-leads the Ordered Universe project, a large interdisciplinary re-examination of 13th century science.  He has also contributed to the philosophy of emergence, and to a research project in cross-curricular education for post-16 pupils.

From 2008 to 2014 he served as Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Research at Durham University and was from 2015-2020 Chair of the Royal Society’s Education Committee.  He is currently a Council Member of the Royal Society and a trustee of the John Templeton Foundation.


Event image: Detail of ‘purple sky with clouds and lightning’ – Photo by Chu Son on Unsplash



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