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No. 55: Jan-Feb 1988

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Goethe's optics reevaluated

"It is beyond dispute that the main objective of the polemical part of Goethe's Farbenlehre, namely, the refutation of Newton's Obticks, was a misguided one. Many consider it to be inexplicable that a man of Goethe's intellectual standing should have behaved in such an apparently irrational manner. It so happens, however, that the characteristics of the subjective spectrum are more akin to Goethe's model than to Newton's. It is true that Goethe put an incorrect interpretation upon what he saw -- and was the first to see -- but a careful scrutiny of his scientific method reveals that his reasoning was far from irrational."

(Duck, Michael; "The Bezold-Bruecke Phenomenon and Goethe's Rejection of Newton's Opticks," American Journal of Physics, 55:793, 1987.)

Comment. Goethe just did not see what Newton saw, and their feud was rather bitter. To illustrate, Goethe considered the subjective aspects of his optical experiments, while Newton neglected them. For example, in the Bezold-Bruecke phenomenon, reds became yellower with increasing brightness -- or seem to with human observers. Goethe's theory of color took such effects into account. Once again, one person's reality can be different from another's.

From Science Frontiers #55, JAN-FEB 1988. 1988-2000 William R. Corliss