Sunday, May 10, 2009

An Eminent Victorian on Goethe's Color Theory

"It might be thought that Goethe had given himself but little trouble to understand the theorems of Newton and the experiments on which they were based. But it would be unjust to charge the poet with any want of diligence in this respect. He repeated Newton's experiments, and in almost every case obtained his results. But he complained of their incompleteness and lack of logical force. What appears to us as the very perfection of Newton's art, and absolutely essential to the purity of the experiments, was regarded by Goethe as needless complication and mere torturing of the light."

Rick, the scientist in our family, has been studying Goethe's scientific works for a while now. Indeed, when Amazon delivered my copy of Robert Richards' book on "romantic science" in Germany, it was a year before I had an opportunity to read it. As a physicist, however, Rick is more interested in Goethe's work on optics, in particular Die Farbenlehre, the so-called color theory. Thus, he recently brought to my attention the work of the eminent Victorian physicist John Tyndall (1820-1893), from whom the above quotation is taken.

The British Dictionary of National Biography describes Tyndall as "physicist and mountaineer." According to his obituary in the Times of London on December 5, 1893, "Although not the first to reach the summit of the Matterhorn, he was intimately associated with the early attempts on that remarkable mountain." A peak near the Matterhorn is named after him.

As an impecunious young man Tyndall went to Marburg, where he attended lectures on experimental and practical chemistry in the laboratory of Robert Bunsen and on mathematics and physics with C.L. Gerling and K.H. Knoblauch. He graduated doctor of philosophy in 1850, after two years, an achievement that seems to have been par for the course among some Victorians. In 1851 he went to Berlin and did diamagnetic research in the laboratory of Gustav Magnus and became acquainted with many German scientists, including Helmholtz.

It was also in 1851 that he began a friendship with T.H. Huxley. In 1853 Tyndall was chosen professor of natural philosophy at the Royal Institution in London, which made him a colleague of Faraday. If those weren't famous friends enough, he and Thomas Carlyle were also friends, and it was at Carlyle's instigation, according to Tyndall, that he decided to undertake an investigation of Goethe's color theory, which appeared as a two-part essay in Popular Science Monthly (vol. 17) in 1880. It begins by drawing attention to his hesitations concerning the color theory:

My reverence for the poet had been awakened by the writings of Mr. Carlyle, and it was afterward confirmed and consolidated by the writings of Goethe himself. But there was one of the poet's works, which, though it lay directly in the line of my own studies, remained for a long time only imperfectly known to me. My opinion of that work was not formed on hearsay. I dipped into it so far as to make myself acquainted with its style, its logic, and its general aim; but having done this I laid it aside, as something which jarred upon my conception of Goethe's grandeur.

Tyndall thus decided to abandon the "Farbenlehre" and to look up to Goethe "on that side where his greatness was uncontested and supreme." In May of 1878, however, Carlyle paid him a visit. "He was then in his eighty-third year, and looking in his solemn fashion toward that portal to which we are all so rapidly hastening." As a "farewell gift," Carlyle presented him with "the two octavo volumes of letter press and the single folio volume, consisting in great part of colored diagrams," that Goethe had sent to Carlyle in June 1830.

By 1880 Tyndall (pictured here in a portrait by George Richmond), along with Huxley and Charles Darwin, were the most famous scientists in Britain, and Tyndall is in fact associated with the same scientific materialism. Some of his scientific work touches on areas of Goethe's interest. For instance, the "Tyndall effect" concerns the scattering of light particles in the atmosphere. Among the research cited by the Dictionary of Scientific Biography are Tyndall's efforts to verify the high absorptive and radiative power of aqueous vapor and to explain the selective difference of the atmosphere on different sounds.
 Like Goethe, Tyndall seems to have been interested in practical matters. His investigations on sound, for instance, attempted to establish efficient fog signals upon British coasts.  Also in a sense replicating Goethe is Tyndall's The Glaciers of the Alps (1860), based on his measurements of glaciers of Switzerland.

For anyone interested in Goethe's color theory, Tyndall provides the most lucid of introductions as well as an analysis, from the point of view of a scientist, of where Goethe went wrong. He truly grappled with Goethe's way of thinking, and comes to a conclusion with which many of us can identify: "I can not even now say with confidence that I fully realize all the thoughts of Goethe. Many of them are strange to the scientific man. They demand for their interpretation a sympathy beyond that required or even tolerated in severe physical research." He gives full credit to Goethe's industry ("The observations and experiments there recorded astonish us by their variety and number"). He goes right to the center of Goethe's thinking and to his missteps.

This question of turbid media took entire possession of the poet's mind. It was ever present to his observation. It was illustrated by the azure of noonday, and by the daffodil and crimson of the evening sky. The inimitable lines written at Ilmenau ["Über allen Gipfeln/ Ist Ruh'/ In allen Wipfeln/ Spürest du/ Kaum einen Hauch"] suggest a stillness of the atmosphere which would allow the columns of fine smoke from the foresters' cottages to rise high into the air. He would thus have an opportunity of seeing the upper portion of the column projected against bright clouds, and the lower portion against dark pines, the brownish yellow of the one and the blue of the other being strikingly and at once revealed.

As long as Goethe remained in the region of fact, Tyndall finds that his observations are of permanent value, "but by the coercion of a powerful imagination he forced his turbid media into regions to which they did not belong, and sought to overthrow by their agency the irrefragable demonstrations of Newton." In the end, "his turbid media entangle him everywhere, leading him captive and committing him to almost incredible delusions."

Tyndall finds it natural that such a singular "character" as Newton would have arrested Goethe's attention and that he must "add it" to a theory of Newton. And here, according to Tyndall, "the great German is at home," prefacing his sketch of his rival's character "by reflections and considerations regarding character in general. Tyndall concludes that the ethical image Goethe draws of Newton --  "vehement persistence in wrong thinking" -- may perhaps coincide with Goethe himself.

I think this provides some flavor of the great Tyndall. He was among the great popularizers of science in the Victorian era. (The illustration at the top of the post is one of his experimental apparatuses for showing that sound is reflected in air at the interface between air masses of different densities.) Tyndall's popular lectures were published as Fragments of Science for Unscientific People. Something of the character of the man can be seen from the fellowships he endowed for students at three American colleges after his lecture tours in the U.S. in 1872-73.

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