Tuesday, January 09, 2007

"Mystery in broad daylight" -- Part 2

Johann Wolfgang Goethe was a polymath who counted himself a scientist as well as a poet. He developed a theory of colors, wrote on the geography of plants, and so on. But he was not part of the mainstream of 19th-century science. He never achieved the enduring influence of a Faraday or a Maxwel. His success was forestalled by his explicit rejection of the Heraclitean maxim: Nature loves to hide.

The goddess has no veils, said Goethe. What you see is what you get. Nothing is hidden. There is a mystery, yes, but it is not concealed behind immediate perception; it is here in "broad daylight," available to anyone with sufficiently acute intuition. "Nature has no mystery," he wrote, "that she does not place fully naked before the eyes of the attentive observer."

Goethe famously took Newton to task for his experiments with light, notably for passing light through a prism and separating it into its component colors. Whatever Newton found thereby, Goethe believed, was not the nature we should seek to know, but rather a broken, shattered thing. As Wordsworth said, "We murder to dissect."

History has passed judgment on Goethe's science. The experimental method of Newton and Faraday has given us the modern world. Nature does hide. A non-experimental observer could attend to nature forever and never discern the electromagnetic spectrum, the quantum periodicities of the elements, or the double-spiral of the DNA.

But neither should the experimental method distract us from the world of the commonplace in which we live our affective lives. Rather, it should add more layers of affective understanding. We properly admire Goethe and Wordsworth for the intensity of their engagement with the natural world. But do we really want to live without knowledge of the galaxies and the DNA?

It is one thing to discern mystery in a starry night or a child's grin. We also encounter mystery in the harmonics of the periodic table and the genomic code. Nature loves to hide. We peel back the goddess's veil and find -- yes, more of the same natural world that excited Goethe's unaided perceptions, but more too -- that coy, come-hither, beckoning tease -- of an apparently inexhaustible mystery that deserves our attention, thanksgiving, reverence, praise.