Green Shadows: Goethe, Ritter and Ørsted on the Polarity of Green and Purple

December 10th, 1777. Goethe descends a snow-covered mountain in the purple light of the sunset. He can hardly believe his eyes. As in a psychedelic dream, all shadows shine in jade green although no such color is objectively present. This striking experience is the beginning of a lifelong obsession. Goethe set up systematic experiments to explore the phenomena of colored shadows and he pursued the complementary structures discovered there far into theoretical physics. As his experiments demonstrated, Newton's famous light spectrum with its green center has a complementary counterpart with a purple center. Moreover, for each optical experiment of Newton's there is a complementary inversion.

Goethe and his scientific partners were convinced that the polar interplay between green and purple, light and dark, warm and cold etc. organizes the entire nature, creating a deep connection of all phenomena. When Wilhelm Herschel discovered infrared light in 1800, for reasons of symmetry invisible radiation was to be expected at the opposite end of the spectrum. Thus in 1801 Johann Ritter discovered UV light with Goethe's method. Another 20 years later, and with the very same method of polarity, a student and friend of Ritter's made his greatest discovery: Ørsted's electromagnetism is the interaction between the polarities of electricity and magnetism; its discovery constitutes both the conclusion and climax of Goethean thought.

The handout to accompany Olaf Müller's keynote lecture can be downloaded here.

Berlin based artist Hubert Schmidleitner accompanies the lecture with a light/shadow intervention, which can be explored from 16 to 22h: a floating green shadow moves over a white wall, augmented with the green shadows of  visitors.

Back to keynotes