Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 17.djvu/326

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312
THE POPULAR SCIENCE MONTHLY.

GOETHE'S FARBENLEHRE.—(THEORY OF COLORS.[1])
By Professor JOHN TYNDALL, F. R. S.
II.

ONE hole Goethe did find in Newton's armor, through which he incessantly worried the Englishman with his lance. Newton had committed himself to the doctrine that refraction without color was impossible. He therefore thought that the object-glasses of telescopes must for ever remain imperfect, achromatism and refraction being incompatible. This inference was proved by Dollond to be wrong.[2] With the same mean refraction, flint-glass produces a longer and richer spectrum than crown-glass. By diminishing the refracting angle of the flint-glass prism, its spectrum may be made equal in length to that of the crown-glass. Causing two such prisms to refract in opposite directions, the colors may be neutralized, while a considerable residue of refraction continues in favor of the crown. Similar combinations are possible in the case of lenses; and hence, as Dollond showed, the possibility of producing a compound achromatic lens. Here, as elsewhere, Goethe proves himself master of the experimental conditions. It is the power of interpretation that he lacks. He flaunts this error regarding achromatism incessantly in the face of Newton and his followers. But the error, which was a real one, leaves Newton's theory of colors perfectly unimpaired.

Newton's account of his first experiment with the prism is for ever memorable. “To perform my late promise to you,” he writes to Oldenburg, “I shall without further ceremony acquaint you that in the year 1666 (at which time I applied myself to the grinding of optick-glasses of other figures than spherical) I procured me a triangular glass prism, to try therewith the celebrated phenomena of colors. And in order thereto, having darkened my chamber, and made a small hole in my window-shuts, to let in a convenient quantity of the sun's light, I placed my prism at its entrance, that it might be thereby refracted to the opposite wall. It was at first a very pleasing divertisement, to view the vivid and intense colors produced thereby; but after a while applying myself to consider them more circumspectly, I became surprised to see them in an oblong form, which, according to the received laws of refractions, I expected should have been circular. They were terminated at the sides with straight lines, but at the ends the decay of light was so gradual that it was difficult to determine justly what was their figure, yet they seemed semicircular.

  1. A discourse delivered in the Royal Institution of Great Britain, on Friday evening, March 19, 1880.
  2. Dollond was the son of a Huguenot. Up to 1752 he was a silk-weaver at Spitalfields; he afterward became an optician.