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by John H. Lienhard

All this talk about light and darkness — what about color?  For there is, in fact, no light without color.  Every wave of light is possessed of one specific color.  We could easily drown ourselves in a sea of science at this point.  But let us instead meet the towering German writer Goethe.

What does he call to mind: literature and philosophy, Faust, the beginning of German Romanticism? All that and more.  And the great polymath Goethe was proudest of a work he’d titled Zur Farbenlehre — his scientific treatise on colors, published in 1810.

Zur Farbenlehre reflected a new anti-Newtonian mood that was driving many scientists. In the minds of many, rationalism had run its course and become intellectually bankrupt.  Goethe especially disliked Newton's work on the light spectrum. Newton had worked in a clean lab, free of the stray variables that so influence color.

So Goethe made his own vast study of light and color.  Then, 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.

That’s why physicists all too easily brushed Zur 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 detached observation.

Science had listened, and it had made a great leap forward. Now Carlyle gave Tyndall his old multi-volume set of Zur 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 — cloudy particulates in the medium between the eye and the object. Goethe showed how our perception of color changes with boundaries or with turbidity.

Goethe demonstrates the influence of boundaries on our perception of color in his Farbenlehre.

Those ideas rang true with Tyndall. He’d done one profoundly important experiment in which created optically-pure, particle-free air.  He’d then shown that organic matter cannot putrefy in such air, because it won't support bacteria. That was hugely important in putting the germ theory of disease on solid footing.

So Tyndall read Zur Farbenlehre. As he did, he recalled Goethe's short poem, Wanderers Nachtlied:

Over all the hilltops
Is peace.
In all the treetops
You sense
Scarcely a breath of air;
Birds are hushed in the woods
Only wait — soon
You too shall find rest.

Goethe’s young contemporary, Schubert, had set those words to a lovely short song.  Let us pause for a moment and listen as soprano Cynthia Clayton and pianist Timothy Hester perform it, just for us.  See how Schubert and Goethe capture the strange intermingling of light, shadow, and turbidity as sleep comes over a forest:

[Wanderers Nachtlied II, D.768: Cynthia Clayton and Timothy Hester]

Now, back to Tyndall. He’d done his share of hiking in the mountains. He talks about the altered color that this stillness of the air, and the hazy turbidity of the evening, present to the wayfarer. He provides 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 darkness and light.


J. Tyndall, Goethe's Farbenlehre. New Fragments, (New York: D. Appleton and Co, 1897, pp. 47-77).

J. W. von Goethe, Theory of Colours. (tr. Charles Lock Eastlake) (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1970).

See the Wikipedia articles on Goethe and on Zur Farbenlehre or Theory of Colours.

Here is a detailed page in which themes of Zur Farbenlehre are laid out, along with some of Goethe’s illustrations:

I’ve done many Engines episodes on aspects of John Tyndall. Here are some that are more relevant to this CD track:,, and

The German text of Goethe's "Wanderers Nachtlied" is as follows (and I take responsibility for the fairly literal English translation above):

Über allen Gipfeln
Ist Ruh.
In allen Wipfeln
Spürest du
Kaum einen Hauch;
Die Vöglein schweigen im Walde!
Warte nur, balde
Ruhest du auch.