Jun 132017

Today is the birthday (1831) of James Clerk Maxwell FRS FRSE, a Scottish mathematical physicist whose most notable achievement was to formulate the classical theory of electromagnetic radiation, bringing together for the first time electricity, magnetism, and light as manifestations of the same phenomenon. Maxwell’s equations for electromagnetism have been called the “second great unification in physics” after the first one realized by Isaac Newton. When most people think of the masterminds of physics they think of Einstein and Newton, but rarely conjure up Maxwell. Yet his accomplishment was of the same magnitude as theirs. Furthermore, his work led directly to the technological accomplishments of the late 19th and 20th centuries including the generation of electricity, leading in turn to electric lighting, the alternator in the internal combustion engine, digital computing, and on and on . . . Unification of forces is a BIG DEAL, not just theoretically, but in practical terms.

With the publication of “A Dynamical Theory of the Electromagnetic Field” in 1865, Maxwell demonstrated that electric and magnetic fields travel through space as waves moving at the speed of light. Maxwell proposed that light is an undulation in the same medium that is the cause of electric and magnetic phenomena. The unification of light and electrical phenomena led to the prediction of the existence of radio waves, which, of course led to the development of radio and television.

I’ll try not to make your eyes glaze over with Maxwell’s equations, but I would like to venture some attempt at the magnitude of his work. First, a little biographical stuff. His genius was immediately obvious to all he encountered rivalled only by his insatiable curiosity. Maxwell was born at 14 India Street, Edinburgh, to John Clerk Maxwell of Middlebie, an advocate, and Frances Cay. His father was a man of comfortable means of the Clerk family of Penicuik, holders of the baronetcy of Clerk of Penicuik. His father’s brother was the 6th Baronet. Maxwell’s parents met and married when they were well into their 30s, and his mother was nearly 40 when he was born. They had had one earlier child, a daughter named Elizabeth, who died in infancy.

When Maxwell was young his family moved to Glenlair House, which his parents had built on the 1,500 acres (610 ha) Middlebie estate. All indications are that Maxwell had an unquenchable curiosity from an early age. By the age of three, everything that moved, shone, or made a noise drew the question: “what’s the go o’ that?” In a passage added to a letter from his father to his sister-in-law Jane Cay in 1834, his mother described this innate sense of inquisitiveness:

He is a very happy man, and has improved much since the weather got moderate; he has great work with doors, locks, keys, etc., and “show me how it doos” is never out of his mouth. He also investigates the hidden course of streams and bell-wires, the way the water gets from the pond through the wall….

Maxwell was taught by his mother, as was the norm in Victorian Scotland until the age of 8 when she died of cancer. He was then taught briefly by a 16-year-old tutor hired by his father. Little is known about the young man except that he treated Maxwell harshly, chiding him for being slow and wayward. Consequently his father dismissed him and sent his son to prestigious Edinburgh Academy. The 10-year-old Maxwell with rural mannerisms and Galloway accent did not fit in well and the other students called him “Daftie,” which biographers usually say he tolerated without complaint. But a classmate wrote that one time when he was being teased by a group of boys he turned on them with a look of demonic ferocity, and after that they left him in peace.

Maxwell was brilliant at geometry at an early age. He rediscovered the regular polyhedra, for example, before he received any formal instruction. His academic prowess remained unnoticed until, at the age of 13, he won the school’s mathematical medal and first prize for both English and poetry. Maxwell’s interests ranged far beyond the school syllabus and he did not pay particular attention to examination performance. He wrote his first scientific paper at the age of 14. In it he described a mechanical means of drawing mathematical curves with a piece of twine, and the properties of ellipses, Cartesian ovals, and related curves with more than two foci. His work “Oval Curves” was presented to the Royal Society of Edinburgh by James Forbes, a professor of natural philosophy at Edinburgh University, but Maxwell was deemed too young to present the work himself. The work was not entirely original, since René Descartes had also examined the properties of such multifocal ellipses in the 17th century, but he had simplified their construction.

Maxwell left the Academy in 1847 at age 16 and began attending classes at the University of Edinburgh. He had the opportunity to attend the University of Cambridge, but decided, after his first term, to complete the full course of his undergraduate studies at Edinburgh. He did not find his classes at Edinburgh University very demanding, and was therefore able to immerse himself in private study during free time at the university and particularly when back home at Glenlair where he experimented with improvised chemical, electric, and magnetic apparatus, but his chief concerns regarded the properties of polarized light. He constructed shaped blocks of gelatine, subjected them to various stresses, and with a pair of polarizing prisms, given to him by William Nicol, viewed the colored fringes that had developed within the jelly. Through this practice he discovered photoelasticity, which is a means of determining the stress distribution within physical structures, which eventually he used to analyze the load bearing properties of metal bridge structures.

At age 18, Maxwell contributed two papers for the Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. One of these, “On the Equilibrium of Elastic Solids”, laid the foundation for an important discovery later in his life, which was the temporary double refraction produced in viscous liquids by shear stress. His other paper was “Rolling Curves” and, just as with the paper “Oval Curves” that he had written at the Edinburgh Academy, he was again considered too young to stand at the rostrum to present it himself. The paper was delivered to the Royal Society by his tutor Kelland instead.

In October 1850, already an accomplished mathematician, Maxwell left Scotland for the University of Cambridge. He initially attended Peterhouse, but before the end of his first term transferred to Trinity, where he believed it would be easier to obtain a fellowship. In November 1851, Maxwell studied under William Hopkins, whose success in nurturing mathematical genius had earned him the nickname of “senior wrangler-maker” (“senior wrangler” is the top undergraduate in mathematics in final examinations). In 1854, Maxwell graduated from Trinity with a degree in mathematics. He scored second highest in finals, coming behind Edward Routh and earning the title of second wrangler. He was later declared equal with Routh in the more exacting ordeal of the Smith’s Prize examination. Immediately after earning his degree, Maxwell read his paper “On the Transformation of Surfaces by Bending” to the Cambridge Philosophical Society. This is one of the few purely mathematical papers he had written, demonstrating Maxwell’s growing stature as a mathematician. He decided to remain at Trinity after graduating and applied for a fellowship, which was a process that he expected to take a couple of years.

Maxwell was made a fellow of Trinity on 10 October 1855, sooner than was the norm, and was asked to prepare lectures on hydrostatics and optics and to set examination papers. The following February he was urged by a colleague to apply for the newly vacant Chair of Natural Philosophy at Marischal College in Aberdeen. His father assisted him in the task of preparing the necessary references, but died on 2 April at Glenlair before either knew the result of Maxwell’s candidacy. Maxwell accepted the professorship at Aberdeen, leaving Cambridge in November 1856. From there he went from success to success in Edinburgh, Cambridge, and London.  Let’s turn now to his achievements.

Maxwell is best remembered for his equations which unified light, electricity, and magnetism into a single phenomenon with varied dimensions. Let me pause and take stock of that idea in the most general terms. The ultimate goal of mathematical physics is to SIMPLIFY the way we look at the world by reducing complex observations to simple rules.  Newton was a towering giant in this respect. He showed that force and motion could be reduced to some basic equations, whether you’re talking about firing a cannon, piloting a ship, or falling from a tall building. F = ma (force equals mass times acceleration) has stood the test of time. As physics has evolved since Newton, more and more forces have been unified into a grand theory.  Electro-magnetic forces, and forces within the atom have already been unified, and it looks as though gravity is within reach with the recent discovery of gravitational waves. Then we will have the “theory of everything” which is a slightly grandiose way of saying that all forces in the universe will be subsumed under one umbrella. Maxwell was a monumentally important figure along that path – every bit as important as Newton and Einstein.

Maxwell had studied and commented on electricity and magnetism as early as 1855 when his paper “On Faraday’s lines of force” was read to the Cambridge Philosophical Society. The paper presented a simplified model of Faraday’s work and how electricity and magnetism are related. He reduced all of the current knowledge into a linked set of differential equations with 20 equations in 20 variables. This work was later published as “On Physical Lines of Force” in March 1861. Maxwell’s equations are a set of partial differential equations that, together with the Lorentz force law, form the foundation of classical electromagnetism, classical optics, and electric circuits. They underpin all electric, optical and radio technologies, including power generation, electric motors, wireless communication, cameras, televisions, computers etc. Maxwell’s equations describe how electric and magnetic fields are generated by charges, currents, and changes of each other. One important consequence of the equations is that they demonstrate how fluctuating electric and magnetic fields propagate at the speed of light. Known as electromagnetic radiation, these waves may occur at various wavelengths to produce a spectrum from radio waves to gamma-rays and everything in between: red, orange, yellow, microwaves, X-rays, intra-red, etc. That’s a lot of stuff.

Within his lifetime other physicists showed that his 20 equations could be boiled down to 4 (see lead photo) which is conventionally how they are perceived nowadays.

Following Newton, Maxwell was  interested in the physics of color but also color perception. From 1855 to 1872, he published at intervals a series of investigations concerning the perception of color, color-blindness, and color theory, and was awarded the Rumford Medal for “On the Theory of Colour Vision.”

Maxwell was also interested in applying his theory of color perception color photography stemming directly from his psychological work on color perception. He argued that if a sum of any three lights could reproduce any perceivable color, then color photographs could be produced with a set of three colored filters. In the course of his 1855 paper, Maxwell proposed that, if three black-and-white photographs of a scene were taken through red, green and blue filters and transparent prints of the images were projected on to a screen using three projectors equipped with similar filters, when superimposed on the screen the result would be perceived by the human eye as a complete reproduction of all the colors in the scene. During an 1861 Royal Institution lecture on color theory, Maxwell presented the world’s first demonstration of color photography by this principle of three-color analysis and synthesis. Thomas Sutton, inventor of the single-lens reflex camera, took the picture. He photographed a tartan ribbon three times, through red, green, and blue filters, also making a fourth photograph through a yellow filter, which, according to Maxwell’s account, was not used in the demonstration. Because Sutton’s photographic plates were insensitive to red and barely sensitive to green, the results of this pioneering experiment were far from perfect.

Maxwell also investigated the kinetic theory of gases. Originating with Daniel Bernoulli, this theory was advanced by the successive work of John Herapath, John James Waterston, James Joule, and particularly Rudolf Clausius, to such an extent as to put its general accuracy beyond a doubt; but it received enormous development from Maxwell, who in this field appeared as an experimenter (on the laws of gaseous friction) as well as a mathematician. Between 1859 and 1866, he developed the theory of the distributions of velocities in particles of a gas, work later generalized by Ludwig Boltzmann. The formula, called the Maxwell–Boltzmann distribution, gives the fraction of gas molecules moving at a specified velocity at any given temperature. In the kinetic theory, temperatures and heat involve only molecular movement. This approach generalized the previously established laws of thermodynamics and explained existing observations and experiments in a better way than had been achieved previously.

Maxwell’s work on thermodynamics led him to devise the thought experiment that came to be known as Maxwell’s demon, where the second law of thermodynamics (law of entropy) is violated by an imaginary being capable of sorting particles by energy. This thought experiment, as has been demonstrated multiple times, is fatally flawed. Observing the particles and opening the door require more energy than is gained by the sorting of the particles.

Maxwell published a paper “On governors” in the Proceedings of Royal Society, vol. 16 (1867–1868). This paper is considered a central paper in the early days of control theory. In this context “governors” refers to the centrifugal governor used to regulate steam engines. A lithograph of Maxwell’s governor hung in the Woodward Governor factory on Slough Trading Estate where I got my first job as an inventory clerk in the stock room as a teenager.

Maxwell’s insatiable curiosity led him to inquire into all manner of subjects including the density of the earth and the composition of water. He was also able to prove that the rings of Saturn were composed of solid particles.

Maxwell died in Cambridge of abdominal cancer on 5 November 1879 at the age of 48. His mother had died at the same age of the same type of cancer. The minister who regularly visited him in his last weeks – he was an ardent Presbyterian – was astonished at his lucidity and the immense power and scope of his memory, and commented,

His illness drew out the whole heart and soul and spirit of the man: his firm and undoubting faith in the Incarnation and all its results; in the full sufficiency of the Atonement; in the work of the Holy Spirit. He had gauged and fathomed all the schemes and systems of philosophy, and had found them utterly empty and unsatisfying — “unworkable” was his own word about them — and he turned with simple faith to the Gospel of the Saviour.

As death approached Maxwell told a Cambridge colleague

I have been thinking how very gently I have always been dealt with. I have never had a violent shove all my life. The only desire which I can have is like David to serve my own generation by the will of God, and then fall asleep.

Maxwell is buried at Parton Kirk beside his parents, near Castle Douglas in Galloway close to where he grew up.

Here’s a Scottish variation on a theme from Galloway.  It’s called Scotch Broth but is not the traditional mutton and barley soup. It’s a chicken, barley, and vegetable soup served with oatmeal dumplings.  The old, traditional recipe calls for boiling the dumpling in a cloth in the soup for an hour, but more modern cooks make small dumplings and cook them directly in the soup.  The original recipe calls for an old boiling hen, but you can use a young chicken. I usually do.

Galloway Scotch Broth with Oatmeal Dumplings



1 3-4 lb chicken (or boiling fowl)
4 oz (115g) barley
8 oz (225g) split peas
1 oz (30g) whole peas
2 leeks, chopped
3 carrots, chopped
1 turnip, chopped
4 brussels sprouts
2 small blades kale, chopped
fresh parsley
chicken stock (optional)


2 oz (60g) beef dripping (or lard)
1 onion, finely chopped
½ lb (250g) fine oatmeal.
salt and pepper.


Put 7 pints (3.6 L) of water (or chicken stock if you prefer) in a large stock pot.  Bring to the boil, then add salt to taste and all the soup ingredients. Simmer gently for about 2 hours (more if using a fowl). Make sure the barley is cooked through.

Meanwhile prepare the dumplings. Make a stiff dough by placing the dumpling ingredients in a bowl, mixing them, then adding cold water a little at a time until it all comes together but is not wet. Roll out dumplings about 1” in diameter and set aside.

Remove the chicken from the soup. Add the dumplings and continue to cook for about 30 minutes. Strip as much chicken meat from the bones as you wish, and add it back to the soup for a few minutes to heat through before serving. Reserve the rest of the chicken meat for other uses.

Apr 162017

Happy Easter 2017 !!!  I’m not going to launch into a long polemic about historical accounts of Easter and the resurrection. If you want my thoughts on all of that read my chapter “What Peter, Paul, and Mary Saw” in this book: https://www.amazon.com/Thinking-Christian-Essays-Prod-Believer-ebook/dp/B01DGJ2OIM/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1492312589&sr=8-1&keywords=forrest+thinking+christian  Instead I will turn my attention to Easter eggs, an enduring symbol of Easter.

Displaying colored chicken’s eggs has been an Easter custom for a very long time; just exactly how long is a matter of debate. Decorating eggs in general is an ancient art. Furthermore, eggs have been an enduring symbol of death and rebirth in numerous Mesopotamian cultures for thousands of years. Thus, their association with Easter seems perfectly natural. What intrigues me is how diverse the traditions are these days.

There seems to me to be some merit in the speculation that boiled eggs were eaten at Easter for practical reasons. In the Middle Ages eggs were forbidden during the Lenten fast in some traditions, but, being Spring time, chickens did not stop laying. You can keep eggs for quite some time without spoilage, but not forever. Three weeks is about the limit. Boiling them allows you to keep them a little longer, and then at Easter, when the Lenten fast is over, they can be eaten. Boiling them with certain natural dye materials, such as onion skins or some tree barks, adds a whole new dimension – including additional decoration.

Let me just interject a quick note here about refrigerating versus not refrigerating fresh eggs. People in the US refrigerate EVERYTHING, including many items that should NOT be refrigerated. Chocolate, bread, and tomatoes, for example, will degrade much more quickly if refrigerated – but people do it anyway (not me!!). Eggs are complicated. Generally they are refrigerated in the US, but not in Europe. There is a reason for the difference. Eggs in the US are scrupulously washed before storage, and the washing removes a thin protective film which they acquire from the hen in the laying process, making the shells porous and open to invasion by harmful bacteria. So after washing they must be refrigerated. Eggs in Europe are not washed, so the protective film is preserved and they can be safely stored at room temperature. I prefer room temperature eggs for cooking under most circumstances, so when I lived in the US I had to take them out of the refrigerator some time before using them.  Here in Italy there is no need – likewise when I lived in Argentina and China. Trying to change habits in the US is almost certainly a lost cause.

There are so many different ways to decorate eggs that it would take me a fortnight to enumerate them all. One simple, very traditional, way is to affix a pattern to the eggs before boiling them in colored water so that the stain penetrates only the bare surface of the eggs. Pace eggs in the north of England are made this way (“pace” being a dialect variant of “pesach” – Aramaic for Passover/Easter, giving the common Romance words – via Latin (pascha) – for Easter such as Pascua, Pasqua, or Pâques).  Pace egging was a longstanding tradition in rural England involving a death and resurrection play and a begging song.  This traditional version comes from Burscough in Lancashire:


In eastern European countries, notably, Ukraine, a tradition of dyeing eggs in highly developed patterns using a wax-resist method (batik) has evolved into an art form that is still popular, with many regional variations.

Similar traditions have evolved throughout Mediterranean and Slavic cultures, and sometimes displaying them on Easter “trees”.

There is also a rather rarer tradition throughout Europe of carving lacey patterns into the uncolored shells.  This is incredibly delicate work that requires years of practice.

Chocolate eggs are a relative newcomer to the Easter scene; not possible until the perfection of techniques for making solid chocolate in the 19th century, allied with industrial processes for making hollow shapes.

Of course you can make decorative or artistic egg-shaped forms for Easter out of any material from marzipan to gold.

There’s probably no need to extol the enormous versatility of the chicken egg. Instead I’ll showcase a dish I made several years ago based on a 14th century recipe: poached egg with a saffron and ginger flavored Hollandaise. You should be able to work it out without a detailed recipe from me.

For Easter breakfast or brunch you can whip up a frittata, tortilla, omelet, or quiche is plain eggs are too bland for you. Later you can have a baked egg custard, pancake, flan, or egg-anything-you want. Let’s instead consider the virtues of eggs other than chicken eggs.

Duck. Duck eggs are not easy to find in the West, but in Chinese markets they are as common as chicken eggs and can be used in much the same way. I bought them all the time in Yunnan. They are a little more flavorful than chicken eggs – perhaps earthier.

Quail. Once quail eggs were hard to find in the West, but I have no trouble getting them in northern Italy now. They’re a little fiddly to cook with.  You can boil them, but peeling them is a chore. I usually fry them, but you’ll need quite a few if you are making a meal of them !!! In China they have special utensils for frying them in a row on a stick. This is a great street snack. Usually I chose the option of dusting them with a hot spicy powder. The fun is in the size more than the taste. They’re not so different from chicken eggs in that regard.

Goose. The goose egg is larger than duck or chicken eggs and is decidedly more robust in flavor. They’re hard to find and I don’t care to go to the trouble these days because I’m not a fan of the taste.

Ostrich. I’ve never seen ostrich eggs for sale outside of Africa, and even there they are not common. Ostriches don’t produce very many eggs and breeders generally use them to make more ostriches. They are gigantic with an exceedingly tough shell that takes a hammer, or the like, to break into. One egg will serve more than one person – scrambled or made into an omelet. They are delicious if you can ever get hold of one that is fresh enough to eat.

Aug 282015


Today is the birthday (1749) of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, German writer, scientist, and statesman. His body of work includes epic and lyric poetry; prose and verse dramas; memoirs; an autobiography; literary and aesthetic criticism; treatises on botany, anatomy, and color; and four novels. In addition, numerous literary and scientific fragments, more than 10,000 letters, and nearly 3,000 drawings by him are extant. A literary celebrity by the age of 25, Goethe was ennobled by the Duke of Saxe-Weimar, Karl August, in 1782 after first taking up residence there in November 1775 following the success of his first novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther. He was an early participant in the Sturm und Drang literary movement. During his first ten years in Weimar, Goethe served as a member of the Duke’s privy council, sat on the war and highway commissions, oversaw the reopening of silver mines in nearby Ilmenau, and implemented a series of administrative reforms at the University of Jena. He also contributed to the planning of Weimar’s botanical park and the rebuilding of its Ducal Palace, which in 1998 were together designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

After returning from a tour of Italy in 1788, his first major scientific work, the Metamorphosis of Plants, was published. In 1791 he was made managing director of the theatre at Weimar, and in 1794 he began a friendship with the dramatist, historian, and philosopher Friedrich Schiller, whose plays he premiered until Schiller’s death in 1805. During this period Goethe published his second novel, Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, the verse epic Hermann and Dorothea, and, in 1808, the first part of his most celebrated drama, Faust. His conversations and various common undertakings throughout the 1790s with Schiller, Johann Gottlieb Fichte, Johann Gottfried Herder, Alexander von Humboldt, Wilhelm von Humboldt, and August and Friedrich Schlegel have, in later years, been collectively termed Weimar Classicism.

I’m going to work on my usual principle of assuming you either know Goethe or you don’t, so dribbling on about his writings is going to bore you or annoy you (possibly both). Instead I will do two things. First, I present a few of potentially thousands of poignant quotes. Second, I give you a brief outline of his theory of color which has had a major impact on philosophers, psychologists, and artists even though it radically conflicts with Newton and physical science.


   One must be something in order to do something.

I have found a paper of mine among some others in which I call architecture ‘petrified music.’ Really there is something in this; the tone of mind produced by architecture approaches the effect of music.

The artist may be well advised to keep his work to himself till it is completed, because no one can readily help him or advise him with it…but the scientist is wiser not to withhold a single finding or a single conjecture from publicity.

Who is the happiest of men? He who values the merits of others, And in their pleasure takes joy, even as though it were his own.

The world is so empty if one thinks only of mountains, rivers and cities; but to know someone here and there who thinks and feels with us, and though distant, is close to us in spirit — this makes the earth for us an inhabited garden.

 A true German can’t stand the French,
Yet gladly he drinks their wines.

In The Theory of Colors (original German title Zur Farbenlehre) Goethe lays out his views on the nature of colors and how they are perceived by humans. Published in 1810, it contains detailed descriptions of phenomena such as colored shadows, refraction, and chromatic aberration. The work originated in Goethe’s occupation with painting and had a major influence on painters (e.g. Philipp Otto Runge, J. M. W. Turner, the Pre-Raphaelites, Wassily Kandinsky). Although rejected by mainstream physics it influenced philosophers and certain physicists including Thomas Johann Seebeck, Arthur Schopenhauer (On Vision and Colors), Hermann von Helmholtz, Rudolf Steiner, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Werner Heisenberg, Kurt Gödel, and Mitchell Feigenbaum.


Goethe’s book provides a catalogue of how color is perceived in a wide variety of circumstances, and considers Isaac Newton’s observations to be special cases. Unlike Newton, Goethe’s concern was not so much with the analytic treatment of color, as with the qualities of how phenomena are perceived. Philosophers have come to understand the distinction between the optical spectrum, as observed by Newton, and the phenomenon of human color perception as presented by Goethe—a subject analyzed at length by Wittgenstein in his exegesis of Goethe in Remarks on Colour.

In Goethe’s time, it was generally acknowledged that, as Isaac Newton had shown in his Opticks in 1704, colorless (white) light is split up into its component colors when directed through a prism. As Goethe notes Louis Bertrand Castel had already published a criticism of Newton’s spectral description of prismatic color in 1740 in which he observed that the sequence of colors split by a prism depended on the distance from the prism — and that Newton was looking at a special case.


in Between Light and Eye Alex Kentsis says:

Whereas Newton observed the colour spectrum cast on a wall at a fixed distance away from the prism, Goethe observed the cast spectrum on a white card which was progressively moved away from the prism… As the card was moved away, the projected image elongated, gradually assuming an elliptical shape, and the coloured images became larger, finally merging at the centre to produce green. Moving the card farther led to the increase in the size of the image, until finally the spectrum described by Newton in the Opticks was produced… The image cast by the refracted beam was not fixed, but rather developed with increasing distance from the prism. Consequently, Goethe saw the particular distance chosen by Newton to prove the second proposition of the Opticks as capriciously imposed.


Unlike his contemporaries, Goethe didn’t see darkness as an absence of light, but rather as polar to and interacting with light; color resulted from this interaction of light and shadow. For Goethe, light is “the simplest most undivided most homogenous being that we know. Confronting it is the darkness” Based on his experiments with turbid media, Goethe characterized color as arising from the dynamic interplay of darkness and light. Rudolf Steiner, the science editor for the Kurschner edition of Goethe’s works, gave the following analogy:

Modern natural science sees darkness as a complete nothingness. According to this view, the light which streams into a dark space has no resistance from the darkness to overcome. Goethe pictures to himself that light and darkness relate to each other like the north and south pole of a magnet. The darkness can weaken the light in its working power. Conversely, the light can limit the energy of the darkness. In both cases color arises.

Goethe says,

Yellow is a light which has been dampened by darkness; Blue is a darkness weakened by light.

Goethe’s studies of color began with experiments which examined the effects of turbid media, such as air, dust, and moisture on the perception of light and dark. The poet observed that light seen through a turbid medium appears yellow, and darkness seen through an illuminated medium appears blue.

The highest degree of light, such as that of the sun… is for the most part colourless. This light, however, seen through a medium but very slightly thickened, appears to us yellow. If the density of such a medium be increased, or if its volume become greater, we shall see the light gradually assume a yellow-red hue, which at last deepens to a ruby colour. If on the other hand darkness is seen through a semi-transparent medium, which is itself illumined by a light striking on it, a blue colour appears: this becomes lighter and paler as the density of the medium is increased, but on the contrary appears darker and deeper the more transparent the medium becomes: in the least degree of dimness short of absolute transparence, always supposing a perfectly colourless medium, this deep blue approaches the most beautiful violet.

He then proceeds with numerous experiments, systematically observing the effects of rarefied media such as dust, air, and moisture on the perception of color.


When viewed through a prism, the orientation of a light–dark boundary with respect to the prism’s axis is significant. With white above a dark boundary, we observe the light extending a blue-violet edge into the dark area; whereas dark above a light boundary results in a red-yellow edge extending into the light area. Goethe was intrigued by this difference. He felt that this arising of color at light–dark boundaries was fundamental to the creation of the spectrum (which he considered to be a compound phenomenon). Since the color phenomenon relies on the adjacency of light and dark, there are two ways to produce a spectrum: with a light beam in a dark room, and with a dark beam (i.e., a shadow) in a light room.

Goethe recorded the sequence of colors projected at various distances from a prism for both cases. In both cases, he found that the yellow and blue edges remain closest to the side which is light, and red and violet edges remain closest to the side which is dark. At a certain distance, these edges overlap—and we obtain Newton’s spectrum. When these edges overlap in a light spectrum, green results; when they overlap in a dark spectrum, magenta results.

With a light spectrum (i.e. a shaft of light in a surrounding darkness), we find yellow-red colours along the top edge, and blue-violet colours along the bottom edge. The spectrum with green in the middle arises only where the blue-violet edges overlap the yellow-red edges.

With a dark spectrum (i.e., a shadow surrounded by light), we find violet-blue along the top edge, and red-yellow along the bottom edge — and where these edges overlap, we find (extraspectral) magenta.

When the eye sees a colour it is immediately excited and it is its nature, spontaneously and of necessity, at once to produce another, which with the original colour, comprehends the whole chromatic scale.


Goethe proposed a symmetric color wheel. He writes,

The chromatic circle… [is] arranged in a general way according to the natural order… for the colours diametrically opposed to each other in this diagram are those which reciprocally evoke each other in the eye. Thus, yellow demands violet; orange [demands] blue; purple [demands] green; and vice versa: thus… all intermediate gradations reciprocally evoke each other; the simpler colour demanding the compound, and vice versa.

In the same way that light and dark spectra yielded green from the mixture of blue and yellow — Goethe completed his color wheel by recognizing the importance of magenta. For Newton, only spectral colors could count as fundamental. By contrast, Goethe’s more empirical approach led him to recognize the essential role of magenta in a complete color circle, a role that it still has in all modern color systems.


Goethe also included aesthetic qualities in his color wheel, under the title of “allegorical, symbolic, mystic use of colour” (Allegorischer, symbolischer, mystischer Gebrauch der Farbe), establishing a kind of color psychology. He associated red with the “beautiful”, orange with the “noble”, yellow to the “good”, green to the “useful”, blue to the “common”, and violet to the “unnecessary”. These six qualities were assigned to four categories of human cognition, the rational (Vernunft) to the beautiful and the noble (red and orange), the intellectual (Verstand) to the good and the useful (yellow and green), the sensual (Sinnlichkeit) to the useful and the common (green and blue) and, closing the circle, imagination (Phantasie) to both the unnecessary and the beautiful (purple and red).

In simple terms, Newton’s understanding of color was devoid of interest in color as it is perceived by humans whereas Goethe’s studies embraced it. This intrigues me because I have often written on what Max Weber calls the “disenchantment of the world” induced by Enlightenment scientific thinking whereby humans and human perception are subtracted from the process. Physical science is essentially inhuman.

Goethe was initially induced to occupy himself with the study of color by the questions of hue in painting. “During his first journey to Italy (1786-88), he noticed that artists were able to enunciate rules for virtually all the elements of painting and drawing except color and coloring. In the years 1786—88, Goethe began investigating whether one could ascertain rules to govern the artistic use of color.”


After being translated into English by Charles Eastlake in 1840, Goethe’s theory became widely adopted by the art world – especially among the Pre-Raphaelites. J. M. W. Turner studied it comprehensively and referenced it in the titles of several paintings. Wassily Kandinsky considered it “one of the most important works.”


Goethe spent much of his professional life in Weimar but his home town was Frankfurt which has many culinary specialties. Obviously this includes the Frankfurt sausage, forebear of the hot dog. But I will pass over them because I have covered hot dogs quite enough, and, in any case, hot dogs bear only a superficial resemblance to the original. Rather, I will talk about Grüne Soße or Grüne Sosse (Green Sauce) which reputedly was created in Frankfurt, and, according to his mother, was Goethe’s favorite. The Frankfurt-style ( where it is sometimes called “Grie Soß” or “Grie Soss”) is made from hard-boiled eggs, oil, vinegar, salt, sour cream, and generous amounts of seven fresh herbs, namely borage, sorrel, garden cress, chervil, chives, parsley, and salad burnet. Variants, often due to seasonal availability, include dill, shallots, lovage, lemon balm, and even spinach. In more frugal times, daisy leaves, broad plantain leaves, and dandelion leaves were also used.. In Grüne Soße, the eggs are hard-boiled, then sieved or pureed before being mixed with sour cream to form the creamy base of the sauce. The fresh chopped herbs are then added. Some variations use buttermilk, quark, or yogurt instead of sour cream.

The sauce is served cold with peeled boiled potatoes as an accompaniment to either hard-boiled eggs or roast beef brisket. It may also be served with cooked fish or roast beef, or as a side dish to barbecue. A local schnitzel specialty, called Frankfurter Schnitzel, is always served with green sauce, along with apple cider (Apfelwein) as a traditional accompanying drink.

The following is merely one of many variations. Use the traditional seven herbs or vary to suit yourself.


Grüne Soße


2 cups packed parsley
1 ½ cups packed watercress
1 cup finely chopped chives
1 cup packed sorrel
½ cup buttermilk
½ cup plain Greek yogurt
½ cup sour cream
1 ½ tsp. walnut oil
1 hard-boiled egg
2 tbsp. fresh lemon juice
salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste


Place all the ingredients in a food processor and pulse until it is smooth.

Jul 062015


Today is the birthday (1887) of Marc Zakharovich Chagall, Russian-French artist. He is well known as a Jewish artist (though Chagall saw his work as “not the dream of one people but of all humanity”). His paintings reflect his childhood in Vitebsk (now in Belarus), and, among other things, inspired the tragic-comic musical Fiddler on the Roof.


Chagall was associated with several major artistic styles and created works in virtually every artistic medium, including painting, book illustrations, stained glass, stage sets, ceramic, tapestries and fine art prints. Using stained glass, he produced windows for the cathedrals of Reims and Metz, windows for the UN, and the Jerusalem Windows in Israel. He also did large-scale paintings, including part of the ceiling of the Paris Opéra.


Before World War I, he traveled between St. Petersburg, Paris, and Berlin. During this period he created his own mixture and style of modern art based on his memories of Eastern European Jewish folk culture. He spent the wartime years in Soviet Belarus, becoming one of the country’s most distinguished artists and a member of the modernist avant-garde, founding the Vitebsk Arts College before leaving again for Paris in 1922.

He had two basic reputations: as a pioneer of modernism and as a major Jewish artist. He experienced modernism’s “golden age” in Paris, where he embraced and combined Cubism, Symbolism, and Fauvism, in which his own vision was a major factor in the development of Surrealism.” Most emphatically Chagall’s work is about color – using a limited palate to create startling colorful visions “When Matisse dies,” Pablo Picasso remarked in the 1950s, “Chagall will be the only painter left who understands what color really is”.

According to art historian Raymond Cogniat, in all Chagall’s work during all stages of his life, it was his colors which attracted and captured the viewer’s attention. During his earlier years his range was limited by his emphasis on form and his pictures never gave the impression of painted drawings. He adds, “The colors are a living, integral part of the picture and are never passively flat, or banal like an afterthought. They sculpt and animate the volume of the shapes… they indulge in flights of fancy and invention which add new perspectives and graduated, blended tones… His colors do not even attempt to imitate nature but rather to suggest movements, planes and rhythms.” He was able to convey striking images using only two or three colors. Cogniat writes, “Chagall is unrivalled in this ability to give a vivid impression of explosive movement with the simplest use of colors…” Throughout his life his colors created a “vibrant atmosphere” which was based on “his own personal vision.”

Chagall’s work is, indeed, highly personal and idiosyncratic; impossible to classify even though many try. Here’s a gallery – mostly about color. I used to have prints of some of these on my walls.

mc13 mc12 mc10 mc9 mc8 mc6 mc2

Lazanki is a popular dish in Chagall’s home town of Vitebsk, and in Belarus in general (as well as Poland). Lazanki arrived in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the mid-16th century when Bona Sforza, Italian wife of King Sigismund I the Old, brought high Italian cuisine to the country. Unlike most Italian dishes in these parts of Europe, lazanki has survived into the 21st century, although the long and cultural history of the dish has been largely forgotten.

Lazanki consists of pieces of dough made from wheat, buckwheat, or rye flour. Basically speaking, Belarusian lazanki and Italian lasagna come from the same roots. Traditionally they are squares or triangles made from flattened tough dough, which are boiled and then served with fried lard and onions on top. During Lent, Belarusians once put ground poppy seeds or mashed berries into the dough. Lazanki were also baked in pots together with meat or cabbage and stewed with sour cream. My preferred method.





rye or wheat flour
salt and sugar to taste
vegetable oil


70g smoked-cooked pork brisket
100g semi-smoked sausages (“hunter’s sausages”)
1 medium-sized onion
vegetable oil
50-70g cream or sour cream
50g grated hard cheese



The dough for lazanki is very much the same as for most pasta (see Hints tab). Sift flour on to a work surface, make a hollow it in, add salt and sugar, and a little bit of vegetable oil for elasticity. Pour water on the flour slowly and mix with your hands until you have a ball that is not sticky and can be kneaded. Knead the dough until it gets hard and flexible.

Roll out the dough to about 1-1.5mm thick, then cut it into triangles or diamonds. Let it dry a bit at room temperature.

Put the lazanki in salted boiling water for 5-7 minutes.

Meanwhile, make the filling. Dice the pork brisket and sauté it in a dry, heavy skillet until it browns and the fat melts. Add finely chopped onions and keep sautéing them until they brown to a golden color. Add the sausages in and sauté for another 3-4 minutes.

When the filling is ready, add the boiled lazanki with a small amount of water from the pan it was cooked in. Add the cream and cheese. Keep stirring the mix constantly while it is cooking. When the cheese becomes thick, remove the pan from the heat. You can serve it on the table straight from the pan, or in a heated serving dish garnished with green herbs. Dill is a good option.

Lazanki can also be baked (a better way, I think, but longer). Take a ceramic pot, put in the boiled lazanki and the filling one layer after another like making lasagna Add the cream and cheese and put it in the oven at 350°F until it is golden on top.