A Holistic Approach to Colour Appearance Around Earth

Rainbow Halos Johannes Kuhl Rainbows, Halos, Dawn and Dusk: The Appearance of Color in the Atmosphere and Goethe’s Theory of Colors by Johannes Kühl

This book explores the captivating colours that appear in the atmosphere of the earth: coronas, glories, halos, rainbows, dawn and dusk. It invites the reader to observe these ephemeral appearances with renewed attention and understanding. In addition, it introduces us to little-known key events in Goethe’s life that were intimately related to his scientific pursuits and his deep experience of colour.

The text moves fluently between natural observations and suggested experiments while the photographs encapsulate the best examples of these. We can constantly relate our own experiences in nature to what is exemplified here. Anything not immediately familiar in the discussion is compensated for by the quality of the pictures and the memories of one’s own atmospheric and colour impressions.

The book’s aim is to be a bridge, or many coloured bow, spanning the physics of atmospheric colour and a spiritual approach to them. I believe nature observers, thinkers, and scientists will all be rewarded by the multi-faceted approach used here.

Gradually, over the first five chapters, a range of phenomena is described and ordered to give a complete survey of what Goethe called the physical colours, the colours which arise from colourless conditions.  Transparent prisms, and raindrops are the most commonly known of this type of colour formation. They arise also through fine dust, misty condensation and thin films for example. Structure and geometry are the determining factors rather than intrinsic colouration. The systematic investigation of the phenomena here presented in no way diminishes one’s expectation and anticipation for further experiences. On the contrary, the explicit wish is that it may be possible to “touch your eyes with the magic wand of knowing what to see”.

All types of physical colour, indeed all types of colour formation known to physics, occur in the transparent life-supporting air between the illuminated earth and the darkness of space. The concept ‘turbidity’—possibly unfamiliar to some audiences—is used here to define the fine and varied material elements that bring about the interaction of light and dark, and thus the subtle mediating role of the atmosphere is made clear. It is the kind of understanding that is both intellectually satisfying and yet leaves us free to experience the phenomena on all levels of our being.

So there follows naturally a chapter on the “sensory-moral effects” of atmospheric colours, where the fullness of human experience is included in the sequence of observations.  From coronas to dawn and dusk a process of integration towards wholeness parallels the range of experiences already described:  knowledge and experience flow together: “ In composite situations with colour phenomena like the rainbow, or dawn and dusk, the human being is integrated, part of the whole.”  At special moments we can even think that Nature builds her own temple around us, within us, and within the world all at once.

The book continues with a very readable overview of Goethe’s Colour Theory. Important references and generous acknowledgements are made to Goethe scholars who sought to justify and uphold the scientific character of Goethe’s method. A bold and clear conclusion is arrived at: the process for colour appearance as described in Goethe’s theory of colours is symbolic of the process of gaining insight—the appearance of truth in the world through human thinking.

In this context, we can consider that the translation of this book into English has an extra cultural significance. Only one third of Goethe’s colour theory has ever, to this day, been published in English. The translators of the Didactic part decided, back in 1837, not to publish the Polemical and Historical parts of the work.  Goethe’s sometimes vehement criticism of Newton’s colour theory was judged irrelevant for a British audience!

Newton laid the foundations for mechanical physics and in the process divided human experience from invisible movement processes in space and time. What he called “corpuscles” of light, and today would be called electromagnetic oscillations, are supposed to constitute the real ‘outer’ world which stimulates our ‘inner’ colour perceptions. Deeper thought reveals this to be an impossible world view- and that is why Rudolf Steiner devoted so much time to its refutation while he worked to champion Goethe’s original scientific approach.

A mechanical view of the world is however very useful for developing machine technology and so we see today the tremendous success of a science that bypasses the qualities of our experience for a world of measurements, movements, and forces. The scientific work here being reviewed is an example of a new kind of science aiming for conscious participation at all levels of our being, not only for explanation or technical control.

The book invites us to consider that it was Goethe’s urge to defend human nature that made him “so astonishingly polemical about conventional Newtonian theory”. For Goethe the whole issue of the theory of colour was inextricably bound up with a profound and fundamental understanding of the nature of human insight and its appearance in the world.

Johannes Kühl then takes a conciliatory approach showing that both conventional physics and a Goethean approach can complement each other’s standpoint:  “From each perspective one can learn about the other’s point of view. There is something to be gained from each, to the benefit of both.”

Following the notable crescendo of the previous chapters, a refreshing narrative is then woven together from Goethe’s letters and poems, describing the place of the Theory of Colours in Goethe’s biography.  Impressed by Goethe’s boldest statements and his positive confidence, many of us have long felt certain that some holistic experience must have occurred within him. Here it has been located and imaginatively reconstructed.  Like all true experiences of this kind it was largely inexpressible, except perhaps to his most intimate friends, but it later came to expression in his poetry. That such an experience was an impulse for the beginning of Goethe’s scientific studies is a wonderful discovery.

A wonderful concluding chapter titled “The Earth’s Atmosphere as the Natural Abode of Colour” brings together the book’s achievement, and invites us to consider the meaning and mystery of our situation as colour beholders.

After this, Chapter 10 is called an appendix as it contains something for scientific specialists, rather than simply for the person who loves colour. There are indications for future research and references to new developments in colour experiments which have already become fruitful in the educational sphere. In particular, the symmetry of both the methods of Goethe and Newton, and the polarity in colour itself, can be revealed by producing both the light and dark spectra simultaneously for example in prism experiments and with colour mixing. Traditional school experiments are certainly enhanced by this I am sure that Goethe would have smiled to see these technical extensions and illustrations of his work.

Goethe’s poem “Dedication” rounds off the book, in a fine 1851 translation. Perhaps our understanding of this beautiful piece of writing has been widened through knowing its biographical context. The feeling is that we have come closer to Goethe, even as we appreciate the vista into the future inspired by the new relationship to Nature which he pioneered.

I found this book to be a useful handbook for accompanying ongoing participation in the special events of atmospheric colour appearance, a stimulus for deepening a contemplative approach to these experiences, and indeed part of that profound work towards wholeness in science.

Alex Murrell is a Physics and Mathematics Teacher at a Rudolf Steiner School in Gloucestershire with a long interest in the criticisms of Sir Isaac Newton by William Blake in England and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in Germany, and how these criticisms can be made fruitful in the practice of science.

Buy the book here