Renoir’s ‘Woman at the Garden’

“No shadow is black. It always has a color.” – Renoir,

Impressionists depicted shadows with colors, and rejected the Newtonian description of darkness as simply an absence of light. In doing so, they were challenging something fundamental.

Neither the Impressionists, nor Newton had the advantage of knowing, or even thinking that perhaps an insect looked at the world differently. That an insect did not perceive the same colors as us.

Insect versus human vision

Insect versus human vision

To this day the Newtonian view is written as gospel in physics textbooks. What I used to find strange was why no one wanted to call l light the absence of darkness.  Having had a a non-Abrahamic  upbringing, as a child, I thought this linguistic play was harmless. I did not yet know that  ‘Darkness’ was synonymous with evil, at least in Western culture.  That it  could only ever be absolute. That there could be no such thing as ‘degrees of darkness’ even though there were ‘degrees of light’ which we perceive as colors.

As a college senior, I stumbled onto Goethe’s Theory of Color, where the writer tabulated a series of experiments to disprove the Newtonian conception of the color spectrum.  Newton’s mistake, according to Goethe, was not looking through the prism. In doing so, Newton, according to Goethe, missed the dynamic interaction between what we call ‘light’ and ‘dark’ to co-create  the spectrum. Using Goethe’s system, colors are different admixtures of ‘properties’ we call ‘light’ and ‘dark’.

A quote attributed to Goethe about his realization of the ‘incorrectness’ of Newton’s theory runs thus:

“Along with the rest of the world I was convinced that all the colors are contained in the light; no one had ever told me anything different, and I had never found the least cause to doubt it, because I had no further interest in the subject…But how I was astonished, as I looked at a white wall through the prism, that it stayed white! That only where it came upon some darkened area, it showed some color, then at last, around the window sill all the colors shone… It didn’t take long before I knew here was something significant about color to be brought forth, and I spoke as through an instinct out loud, that the Newtonian teachings were false.”

Anyone who’s read a high school physics textbook (or middle school, depending on which part of the world you’re in) can tell you that Goethe is ‘incorrect’ because he is ‘confusing’ color produced by chemical interactions in the white paint, with colors found in light waves.  Therefore Goethe is ‘wrong’.

The truth is, no one in the scientific community has been able to come up with an  ‘explanation’ for why mixing color pigments produce different combinations from those produced by light rays.


   Why did scientists reject Goethe out of hand and continue to do so?

Typical arguments I’ve heard against Goethe is “If this was true scientists would’ve found out by now. Just pass the steak along.” 

Would they really? Scientists and artists like to think of each other as living in alternate universes.  An artist has a naturally endowed ‘instrument’ that can detect the nuances of color far better, and yet, if they paint shadows blue or red, they’re being ‘irrational’? Why? Because artificial instruments that compute in numbers are superior? Because being able to measure the input at the back of your eye is superior?

The scientist believes in numbers. The scientist believes that the senses are ‘weak’.  Also, if they did acknowledge Goethe, certain theories would topple. An example of this is:

Are stars emitting ‘Light’ due to chemical interactions inside them, or reflecting ‘Light’ like mirrors?



What’s your first impulse when its raining hard and you don’t have an umbrella? You run for cover.

But my high school physics textbook touted it didn’t make a difference.

Whether you ran or walked, the number of raindrops hitting you would be the same.

I was stumped.

If you heard something similar, your head no doubt started doing all kinds of philosophical gymnastics, as did mine. But this seemingly ‘simple’ — whatever that means — problem, isn’t so ‘simple’ after all.  Here are some alleys of thought this stumper sends our minds down…

1)     “That’s frigging impossible!”

The above approach solves it by leaving containers in the rain and ‘showing’ they acquire more water with time. When this container is on a cart that can be moved, the slower it moves, the more water it acquires.  (The mathematical proof there goes through a lot of trouble just to establish this.)

2)    What about the wind?

We think of everything natural as chaotic and unpredictable. So the wind is ‘spoiling’ an  ‘ideal’ situation. Hypothetically, if there was no wind, and it was raining hard enough, then maybe it wouldn’t make a difference.


The above approach imagines what it would be like to be able to take a ‘photograph’ of each and every ‘moment’ one spends in the rain. Then, reducing the volume of space the runner  covers into cubes of the same volume. Then counting the number of raindrops inside of each cube at any moment, and calculating how  the number changes between photographs.

I didn’t find it as convincing. Mathematically, it was a valid argument. But is there more?

Is it really about the number of raindrops? Is the problem really about how wet you get?

I remember sitting by the window as a high school student, watching the rain, contemplating… then  suddenly, I thought of Neo.

Remember the scene in the Matrix, where Neo goes to visit the Oracle, and runs into this bald kid?

Spoon Bend...or Mind Bend?

Spoon Bend…or Mind Bend?

Bald kid: Do not try and bend the spoon. That’s impossible. Instead… only try to realize the truth.
Neo: What truth? 
Bald kid: There is no spoon. 
Neo: There is no spoon? 
Bald kid: Then you’ll see, that it is not the spoon that bends, it is only yourself. 

Remember when Neo finally figures out what the kid meant?


Imagine doing the same thing to the rain what Neo does to bullets.  You just see a curtain of rain, frozen, hanging there. And realize it makes no difference whether you run or walk. The same number of drops will hit you regardless.

It’s not difficult to guess  the philosophical counter arguments to this approach, but the arguments are more concerned with themselves than the underlying truths such thought experiments reveal.

I remember staring at the never ending curtain of rain as a high school kid, and wondering if math really made complex things more simple, or simple things more complex.