The Phenomena of Physics Illustrated with Psychedelic Art in an Influential 19th-Century Textbook

The sci­ence of optics and the fine art of sci­ence illus­tra­tion arose togeth­er in Europe, from the ear­ly black-and-white col­or wheel drawn by Isaac New­ton in 1704 to the bril­liant­ly hand-col­ored charts and dia­grams of Goethe in 1810. Goethe’s illus­tra­tions are more renowned than Newton’s, but both inspired a con­sid­er­able num­ber of sci­en­tif­ic artists in the 19th cen­tu­ry. It would take a sci­ence writer, the French jour­nal­ist and math­e­mati­cian Amédée Guillemin, to ful­ly grasp the poten­tial of illus­tra­tion as a means of con­vey­ing the mind-bend­ing prop­er­ties of light and col­or to the gen­er­al pub­lic.

Guillemin pub­lished the huge­ly pop­u­lar text­book Les phénomènes de la physique in 1868, even­tu­al­ly expand­ing it into a five-vol­ume physics ency­clo­pe­dia. (View and down­load a scanned copy at the Well­come Col­lec­tion.) He real­ized that in order to make abstract the­o­ries “com­pre­hen­si­ble” to lay read­ers, Maria Popo­va writes at Brain Pick­ings, “he had to make their ele­gant abstract math­e­mat­ics tan­gi­ble and cap­ti­vat­ing for the eye. He had to make physics beau­ti­ful.” Guillemin com­mis­sioned artists to make 31 col­ored lith­o­graphs, 80 black-and-white plates, and 2,012 illus­trat­ed dia­grams of the phys­i­cal phe­nom­e­na he described.

The most “psy­che­del­ic-look­ing illus­tra­tions,” notes the Pub­lic Domain Review, are by Parisian intaglio print­er and engraver René Hen­ri Digeon and “based on images made by the physi­cist J. Sil­ber­mann show­ing how light waves look when they pass through var­i­ous objects, rang­ing from a bird’s feath­er to crys­tals mount­ed and turned in tour­ma­line tongs.”

Digeon also illus­trat­ed the “spec­tra of var­i­ous light sources, solar, stel­lar, metal­lic, gaseous, elec­tric,” above, and cre­at­ed a col­or wheel, fur­ther down, based on a clas­si­fi­ca­tion sys­tem of French chemist Michel Eugène Chevreul.

Many of Digeon’s images “were used to explain the phe­nom­e­non of bire­frin­gence, or dou­ble refrac­tion,” the Pub­lic Domain Review writes (hence the dou­ble rain­bow). In addi­tion to his strik­ing plates, this sec­tion of the book also includes the image of the soap bub­ble above, by artist M. Rap­ine, based on a paint­ing by Alexan­dre-Blaise Des­goffe.

[The artists’] sub­jects were not cho­sen hap­haz­ard­ly. New­ton was famous­ly inter­est­ed in the iri­des­cence of soap bub­bles. His obser­va­tions of their refrac­tive capac­i­ties helped him devel­op the undu­la­to­ry the­o­ry of light. But he was no stranger to feath­ers either. In the Opticks (1704), he not­ed with won­der that, “by look­ing on the Sun through a Feath­er or black Rib­band held close to the Eye, sev­er­al Rain-bows will appear.”

In turn, Guillemin’s lav­ish­ly illus­trat­ed ency­clo­pe­dia con­tin­ues to influ­ence sci­en­tif­ic illus­tra­tions of light and col­or spec­tra. “In order thus to place itself in com­mu­nion with Nature,” he wrote, “our intel­li­gence draws from two springs, both bright and pure, and equal­ly fruitful—Art and Sci­ence.” See more art from the book at Brain Pick­ings and the Pub­lic Domain Review.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Vibrant Col­or Wheels Designed by Goethe, New­ton & Oth­er The­o­rists of Col­or (1665–1810)

Goethe’s Col­or­ful & Abstract Illus­tra­tions for His 1810 Trea­tise, The­o­ry of Col­ors: Scans of the First Edi­tion

A 900-Page Pre-Pan­tone Guide to Col­or from 1692: A Com­plete Dig­i­tal Scan

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness


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