Scientist of the Day - Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, a German writer and natural philosopher, was born Aug. 28, 1749. Goethe is best known for his literary works, such as The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774) and Faust (1808 and 1832). But Goethe also saw himself as a Naturforscher, an investigator of nature. In 1790, he published On the Metamorphoses of Plants, in which he argued that all of the different parts of a plant are simply variations on the structure of a leaf, and in which he, incidentally, founded the science of morphology--the study of form.
In 1810, Goethe published Zur Farbenlehre (Theory of Colors), which took strong issue with Newtonian optics. Goethe claimed that the eye is an inseparable part of optics, and that studying refraction and reflection without taking the eye into account, as Newton had done, is folly. Goethe studied physiological effects such as color reversals (what happens when you stare at a green object and then, shifting your gaze to a white wall, literally see red), and how the juxtaposition of colors changes what you see, and the role of shadows in perceiving color. Most modern commentators think that Goethe was out of his element in attacking Newton, but some think his emphasis on the physiology of vision was an important corrective to Newtonian geometrical optics. And a few argue that Goethe's study of form in nature, and its variations, played a role in the rise of comparative anatomy in the 19th century, and subsequently of Darwinian evolution. We have first editions of both of Goethe's scientific treatises in our History of Science Collection.
The images above, which we offer without analysis, were taken from the Atlas volume of Zur Farbenlehre. The portrait, by Johann Stieler, depicting Goethe at age 79, is in the Neue Pinakothek in Munich.
Dr. William B. Ashworth, Jr., Consultant for the History of Science, Linda Hall Library and Associate Professor, Department of History, University of Missouri-Kansas City. Comments or corrections are welcome; please direct to email@example.com.