Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Goethe: Poet, polymath and mineralogist (1749-1832)

The poet of the German enlightenment is best known for works such as 'The sufferings of young Werner' and the quintessential mad scientist story 'Doctor Faustus' (in which the protagonist sells his soul to the devil for knowledge). In an age when anyone with a pretence to an education was polymathic, he was widely acknowledged as a leading intellectual, and had many other important accomplishments that are now overshadowed by his artistic fame.

Amongst other things he was a minister in the Duke of Weimar's privy council (the term originated to describe those intimate enough with the ruler to talk to him when on the privy), ran mines, acted as a political advisor and organised museums and collections. He was a reputed research scientist, famed for his 'study of colour', a meteorologist (he designed a barometer), botanist (author of the metamorphosis of plants), anatomist, geologist and mineralogist. He also dabbled in alchemy (closely related to mining in his day), as did most early 'scientists', including Newton.

His interest in rocks started in his early twenties, when he was made the Duke's mining supervisor, reopening the copper mine at Ilmenau in 1784 in order to increase state revenues. He studied silver ores and coal measures for his patron, and helped develop the mining industry in the state of Weimar (at this time Germany did not exist, its current territory was a patchwork of small feudal states). He maintained a wide circle of contacts throughout Europe and the New World, exchanging suites of rock samples and translating important scientific works between languages to further their dissemination. , He participated in the great development of international scientific exchange of the eighteenth century, when networks of interested amateurs evolved into professional scientists and laid the foundations for many modern disciplines. No 'scientist' in those days restricted themselves to a single study area or activity.

He travelled widely in connection with his various works, exploring geology and gathering rocks as he went. He was such an assiduous collector that he promised himself repeatedly before trips not to gather and lug any rocks, and broke it every time (something all geologists do, myself included). His field trips included the Hartz mountains, where he studied granite, and Italy, where he explored Vesuvius, guided by the British consul and first volcanologist Hamilton.

When he died, his mineral collection amounted to nearly 18000 items and was one of the largest private collections in Europe. They are still as he left them in his home in Weimar (the Geothehaus), stored in the same annex and cabinets he designed. He began gathering rocks in the 1770's and continued until his death, a span of over half a century. Remember that until the mid 19th century, 'minerals' included rocks and fossils, encompassing anything non archaeological that came out of the Earth. The separation of mineral studies into petrology, mineralogy and palaeontology was a nineteenth century affair, a development which he contributed to. This work was done in in Europe's great museums, which developed after the French revolution into the research institutions we know today. Goethe was one of those who shaped the vision of a museum as a store of samples for use in teaching and research. In 1804 he became the Weimar superintendent of museums, which he thought his most important administrative duty, shaping them into research institutions rather than aristocratic curiosity cabinets.

Geologically he was a student of Werner, the pillar of the Neptunist hypothesis (which was anti catastrophist and thought all rocks were precipitated from water) and pioneer of a standardised description protocol and terminology for rocks and minerals, based on German mining practise. Many words used in mining to this day are German in origin, since they were acknowledged the masters of geognosy (as mining and structural geology were then labelled). He published ' a short classification and description of the various rocks in 1786, and developed the systematic study of petrology, though his interpretations are now dated.

Goethe saw the purpose of his personal mineral collection as gathering representative suites of rocks from as many places as possible. By studying such suites, and comparing results with others worldwide, he hoped to create the preconditions for developing a theory of the Earth based on facts rather than supposition. He was the forerunner of the modern museum mineralogy department, and extended this philosophy to the state's museums when he administered them. He once said that rare or beautiful specimens were not the objective of his collection, but the most geologically informative

He recognised that a non speculative and empirical theory of the earth was beyond a single person, and needed a thorough description of global geology in standardised terminology. He therefore sought to establish a corresponding network worldwide in order to collate one based on shared mapping and rocks. The objective was to arrive at a standardised description and mapping of the world's rocks in order to theorise upon, putting the horse before the cart, unlike many speculators on his era. He wasn't the only one engaged in this project, but his fame and authority gave him access in corridors of power and allowed his contribution to be substantial.

In 1810 he published his Theory of colour, which he saw as his most important work. He viewed his science as a greater contribution than his art to civilisation, and in his published conversations with Johann Eckermann he is quoted as saying 'As to what I have done as a poet,… I take no pride in it… But that in my century I am the only person who knows the truth in the difficult science of colours – of that, I say, I am not a little proud, and here I have a consciousness of a superiority to many'. He belonged to the romantic movement, who tried to reconcile reason and passion, and integrated this approach into his scientific work.

Modern historians of science dismiss him as a dilettante, though he was a pioneer of a standardised mineralogy and petrology. They ignore the scientific context of the time, in which most people who studied science were 'amateurs', usually either wealthy or educated rural provincials trying not to die of boredom out in the sticks (iguanodon was discovered by a country doctor). The amateurs usually reported their findings and sent specimens to the budding professional scientists in museums. In the Earth sciences, he was not an amateur, being tied to the latest work in what was then the world centre of Geology: Germany.

They also make the mistake of judging his scientific works in the light of current knowledge, rather than in the context of what was then the known. Each scientific generation tends to disparage those before as ignorant, and earlier on the mythical climb 'up the ladder of knowledge and enlightenment out of the depths of superstition and ignorance'. His incorrect geological interpretations were orthodox in his day, and his contribution to the progress of geology as a discipline is undeniable. He strikes me more as a genius who made an impact in many areas.

Thanks to his fame as an author, and consequent access to wide (and high) social circles, he was able to introduce science as a fashion into the aristocracy. This brought financial patronage into the scientific world from sources that would otherwise not have been interested. He encouraged aristocrats who ruled their statelets to extend their curiosity cabinets into research and teaching collections, and helped develop the scientific education that made Germany a rich and powerful industrialised nation by the end of the century. The bait he used was geology, and its application in increasing mining revenue.

He is remembered in the mineral goethite, as well as the German governmental international cultural organisation: The Goethe Institut

Portrait of Goethe in the Roman Campagna, 1797, by Tischbein. Image credit: Martin Kraft/Stadel Museum, Frankfurt.

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