Today, light and color. The University of Houston's
College of Engineering presents this series about
the machines that make our civilization run, and
the people whose ingenuity created them.
When you think of the
towering German writer Goethe, what comes to mind?
Literature and philosophy, Faust, and the
beginning of German Romanticism. But Goethe was
proudest of his Farbenlehre -- his
scientific treatise on colors, published in 1810.
The Farbenlehre reflected a new
anti-Newtonian mood that was driving many
scientists. In the minds of many, rationalism had
run its course and was bankrupt. Goethe especially
disliked Newton's work on the light spectrum.
Newton had worked in a clean environment, free of
the stray variables that so influence color.
So Goethe made his own vast study of light and
color. But after he'd made his experiments and
talked about their implications, he went on to
dissect Newton himself. Newton had died nearly a
century before, but he still ruled physics. And,
while many of Goethe's criticisms may've been
valid, Newton's optics was on pretty solid footing.
So physicists brushed the Farbenlehre
aside, despite the wealth of observation within it.
Years later, in 1878, Thomas Carlyle called upon
the great British physicist John Tyndall. Tyndall
had been deeply influenced by the Romantic poets
and writers like Carlyle who'd followed them.
They'd been saying that science had to arise within
the human heart and head, as well as out of
Science had listened, and it'd made a great leap
forward. Now Carlyle gave Tyndall his old
multi-volume set of the Farbenlehre.
Tyndall read it with unfolding awe. Never mind
theories of light; Goethe's experiments had shown
how the mind mixed light to produce color -- how
the mind forged illusion in doing so.
Two essential ideas ran through the work. The first
was that color is meaningless to the mind without
the boundaries that inevitably frame any
image. The other omnipresent factor is
turbidity -- cloudiness or particulates in
the medium between the eye and the object. Goethe
showed how our perception of color changes with
boundaries or with turbidity.
Those ideas rang true with Tyndall. In an important experiment, he'd
created optically pure air and shown that organic
matter cannot putrefy in it, because it doesn't
As Tyndall reads the Farbenlehre he
recalls Goethe's short poem, Wanderers
Over all the hilltops
In all the treetops
Scarcely a breath of air;
Birds are hushed in the woods
Only wait -- soon
You too shall find rest.
Tyndall had done his share of hiking in the
mountains. He talks about the altered color that
this stillness of the air, this reduction of
turbidity, presents to the wayfarer. It is a
strange fusion of poetry and physics. Tyndall
finishes with a last sad look at Newton and Goethe,
and he laments the way poets and scientists exclude
one another. Each, after all, brings unique tools
to the essential task of helping us to see the true
color of things.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
J. Tyndall, Goethe's Farbenlehre. New
Fragments, New York: D. Appleton and Co, 1897,
J. W. von Goethe, Theory of Colours. (tr.
Charles Lock Eastlake) Cambridge, MA: The MIT
As a matter of interest, Goethe is regarded as a
Romantic by most English-language scholars. Many
German scholars, however, regard him as being a
classicist, separate from German Romantic writers
like Heinrich Heine. In any case, his later
writings strongly advance the thinking of the
Romantic writers and poets.
The German text of Goethe's "Wanderers Nachtlied"
is as follows (and I take responsibility for the
free English translation above):
Über allen Gipfeln
In allen Wipfeln
Kaum einen Hauch;
Die Vöglein schweigen im Walde!
Warte nur, balde
Ruhest du auch.
My thanks to James Pipkin, UH English Department,
and Jack Hall, UH Library, for their counsel on
Goethe demonstrates the influence of
boundaries on our perception of color in his
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2003 by John H.