Friday, July 31, 2009

Goethe and the Unobservable

Goethe supposedly hated the sight of people wearing glasses, though he was nearsighted himself and occasionally used a lorgnette. This aversion was aesthetic, even ethical. Here is the money quote, from a conversation with Eckermann:

It may be one of my peculiarities -- he told me repeatedly -- but I cannot overcome this aversion. As soon as a stranger enters my room with spectacles on his nose, I experience an ill feeling which I cannot master. ... The glasses give the impression of a discourteous person to me; as if a stranger on his first encounter would attempt to say something unpleasant to me.

As an extension of this, it is often held that Goethe objected to modern "Sehhilfen," such as microscopes and telescopes. Hartmut Böhme, in a chapter entitled "The Metaphysics of Phenomena: Telescope and Microscope in the Works of Goethe, Leeuwenhoek, and Hooke" (in Scenes of Knowledge in the 17th Century, 2005), disputes this contention. He quotes Goethe:

From the greatest as well as the smallest (and only observable to humans through the most artificial means) emerges the metaphysics of phenomena. In the middle lies the particular, what befits our senses, what I rely on. From the bottom of my heart I bless those gifted individuals who bring these regions closer (HA 12, 435).

As Böhme writes, Goethe used both microscope and telescope since his youth and "eagerly consulted the microscope" in his botanical, zoological, and mineralogical studies. (Read more to learn about "the metaphysics of phenomena"!) At left Hooke's microscope, and herewith the kind of microscope Goethe might have owned.

It was a review of works by philosopher of science Bas C. van Fraasen in the current Times Literary Supplement that got me to thinking about Goethe and microscopes. According to the review, 18th-century science "stuck to the surface of things, systematizing and cataloging the observable world." It was only in the 19th century that "microscopic theories" penetrated the scientific method and indeed the surface of things.

The review was accompanied by beautiful illustrations, "polarized micrographs," made possible by the development of optical instruments. Goethe of course relied on the most primitive of microscopes, in comparison to what we possess today. I have a feeling he would have loved the kinds of results (as pictured here) that microscopy makes possible. The above image of a section of a meteorite ("an example of a barred chondrule found in a thin section of JaH 055") is by Tom Phillips, who is featured (along with other micrographs and his equipment) in an issue of "Meteorite Times Magazine." According to Wikipedia, the topmost image of pollen was selected as "image of the day" on February 16 and December 9, 2005. Imagine these gorgeous things the next time spring causes you to sneeze!

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