Donate books to help fund our work. Learn more→

The Rudolf Steiner Archive

a project of Steiner Online Library, a public charity

The Light Course
GA 320

Lecture X

3 January 1920, Stuttgart

My dear Friends,

I will now bring these few improvised hours of scientific study to a provisional conclusion. I want to give you a few guiding lines which may help you in developing such thoughts about Nature for yourselves, taking your start from characteristic facts which you can always make visible by experiment. In Science today—and this applies above all to the teacher—it is most important to develop a right way of thinking upon the facts and phenomena presented to us by Nature. You will remember what I was trying to shew yesterday in this connection. I shewed how since the 1890's physical science has so developed that materialism is being lifted right out of its bearings, so to speak, even by Physics itself. This is the point to remember above all in this connection.

The period when Science thought that it had golden proofs of the universality of waves and undulations was followed, as we say, by a new time. It was no longer possible to hold fast to the old wave-theories. The last three decades have in fact been revolutionary. One can imagine nothing more revolutionary in any realm than this most recent period has been in Physics. Impelled by the very facts that have not emerged, Physics has suffered no less a loss than the concept of matter itself in its old form. Out of the old ways of thinking, as we have seen, the phenomena of light had been brought into a very near relation to those of electricity and magnetism. Now the phenomena produced by the passage of electricity through tubes in which the air or gas was highly rarefied, led scientists to see in the raying light itself something like radiating electricity. I do not say that they were right, but this idea arose. It came about in this way:—The electric current until then had always been hidden as it were in wires, and one had little more to go on than Ohm's Law. Now one was able, so to speak, to get a glimpse of the electricity itself, for here it leaves the wire, jumps to the distant pole, and is no longer able as it were to conceal its content in the matter through which it passes.

The phenomena proved complicated. As we say yesterday, manifold types of radiation emerged. The first to be discovered were the so-called cathode rays, issuing from the negative pole of the Hittorf tube and making their way through the partial vacuum. In that they can be deflected by magnetic forces, they prove akin to what we should ordinarily feel to be material. Yet they are also evidently akin to what we see where radiations are at work. This kinship comes out most vividly when we catch the rays (or whatsoever it is that is issuing from the negative electric pole) upon a screen or other object, as we should do with light. Light throws a shadow. So do these radiations. Yet in this very experiment we are again establishing the near relation of these rays to the ordinary element of matter. For you can imagine that a bombardment is taking place from here (as we say yesterday, this is how Crookes thinks of the cathode rays). The “bombs” do not get through the screen which you put in the way; the space behind the screen is protected. This can be shewn by Crookes's experiment, interposing a screen in the way of the cathode rays.

We will here generate the electric current; we pass it through this tube in which the air is rarefied. It has its cathode or negative pole here, its anode or positive pole here. Sending the electricity through the tube, we are now getting the so-called cathode rays. We catch them on a screen shaped like a St. Andrew's cross. We let the cathode rays impinge on it, and on the other side you will see something like a shadow of the St. Andrew's cross, from which you may gather that the cross stops the rays. Observe it clearly, please. Inside the tube is the St. Andrew's cross. The cathode rays go along here; here they are stopped by the cross; the shadow of the cross becomes visible upon the wall of the vessel behind it. I will now bring the shadow which is thus made visible into the field of a magnet. I beg you to observe it now. You will find the shadow influenced by the magnetic field. You see then, just as I might attract a simple bit of iron with a magnet, so too, what here emerges like a kind of shadow behaves like external matter. It behaves materially.

Here then we have a type of rays which Crookes regards as “radiant matter”—as a form of matter neither solid, liquid or gaseous but even more attenuated,—revealing also that electricity itself, the current of electricity, behaves like simple matter. We have, as it were, been trying to look at the current of flowing electricity as such, and what we see seems very like the kind of effects we are accustomed to see in matter.

I will now shew you, what was not possible yesterday, the rays that issue from the other pole and that are called “canal rays”. You can distinguish the rays from the cathode, going in this direction, shimmering in a violet shade of colour, and the canal rays coming to meet them, giving a greenish light. The velocity of the canal rays is much smaller.

Finally I will shew you the kind of rays produced by this apparatus: they are revealed in that the glass becomes fluorescent when we send the current through. This is the kind of rays usually made visible by letting them fall upon a screen of barium platinocyanide. They have the property of making the glass intensely fluorescent. Please observe the glass. You see it shining with a very strong, greenish-yellow, fluorescent light. The rays that shew themselves in this way are the Roentgen rays or X-rays, mentioned yesterday. We observe this kind too, therefore.

Now I was telling you how in the further study of these things it appeared that certain entities, regarded as material substances, emit sheaves of rays—rays of three kinds, to begin with. We distinguished them as \(\alpha\)-, \(\beta\)-, and \(\gamma\)-rays (cf. the Figure IXc). They shew distinct properties. Moreover, yet another thing emerges from these materials, known as radium etc. It is the chemical element itself which as it were gives itself up completely. In sending out its radiation, it is transmuted. It changes into helium, for example; so it becomes something quite different from what it was before. We have to do no longer with stable and enduring matter but with a complete metamorphosis of phenomena.

Taking my start from these facts, I now want to unfold a point of view which may become for you an essential way, not only into these phenomena but into those of Nature generally. The Physics of the 19th century chiefly suffered from the fact that the inner activity, with which man sought to follow up the phenomena of Nature, was not sufficiently mobile in the human being himself. Above all, it was not able really to enter the facts of the outer world. In the realm of light, colours could be seen arising, but man had not enough inner activity to receive the world of colour into his forming of ideas, into his very thinking. Unable any longer to think the colours, scientists replaced the colours, which they could not think, by what they could,—namely by what was purely geometrical and kinematical—calculable waves in an unknown ether. This “ether” however, as you must see, proved a tricky fellow. Whenever you are on the point of catching it, it evades you. It will not answer the roll-call. In these experiments for instance, revealing all these different kinds of rays, the flowing electricity has become manifest to some extent, as a form of phenomenon in the outer world,—but the “ether” refuses to turn up. In fact it was not given to the 19th-century thinking to penetrate into the phenomena. But this is just what Physics will require from now on. We have to enter the phenomena themselves with human thinking. Now to this end certain ways will have to be opened up—most of all for the realm of Physics.

You see, the objective powers of the World, if I may put it so,—those that come to the human being rather than from him—have been obliging human thought to become rather more mobile (albeit, in a certain sense, from the wrong angle). What men regarded as most certain and secure, that they could most rely on, was that they could explain the phenomena so beautifully by means of arithmetic and geometry—by the arrangement of lines, surfaces and bodily forms in space. But the phenomena in these Hittorf tubes are compelling us to go more into the facts. Mere calculations begin to fail us here, if we still try to apply them in the same abstract way as in the old wave-theory.

Let me say something of the direction from which it first began, that we were somehow compelled to bring more movement into our geometrical and arithmetical thinking. Geometry, you know, was a very ancient science. The regularities and laws in line and triangle and quadrilateral etc.,—the way of thinking all these forms in pure Geometry—was a thing handed down from ancient time. This way of thinking was now applied to the external phenomena presented by Nature. Meanwhile however, for the thinkers of the 19th century, the Geometry itself began to grow uncertain. It happened in this way. Put yourselves back into your school days: you will remember how you were taught (and our good friends, the Waldorf teachers, will teach it too, needless to say; they cannot but do so),—you were undoubtedly taught that the three angles of a triangle (Figure Xa) together make a straight angle—an angle of 180°. Of course you know this. Now then we have to give our pupils some kind of proof, some demonstration of the fact. We do it by drawing a parallel to the base of the triangle through the vertex. We then say: the angle \(\alpha\), which we have here, shews itself here again as \(\alpha'\). \(\alpha\) and \(\alpha'\) are alternate angles and therefore equal. I can transfer this angle over here, then. Likewise this angle \(\beta\), over here; again it remains the same.

Figure 10a

The angle \(\gamma\) stays where it is. If then I have \(\gamma = \gamma'\), \(\alpha = \alpha'\) and \(\beta=\beta'\), while \(\alpha'+\beta;' + \gamma'\) taken together give an angle of 180° as they obviously do, \(\alpha + \beta + \gamma\) will do the same. Thus I can prove it so that you actually see it. A clearer or more graphic proof can scarcely be imagined.

However, what we are taking for granted is that this upper line A'B' is truly parallel to the lower line \(AB\),—for this alone enables me to carry out the proof. Now in the whole of Euclid's Geometry there is no way of proving that two lines are really parallel, i.e. that they only meet at an infinite distance, or do not meet at all. They only look parallel so long as I hold fast to a space that is merely conceived in thought. I have no guarantee that it is so in any real space. I need only assume that the two lines meet, in reality, short of an infinite distance; then my whole proof, that the three angles together make 180°, breaks down. For I should then discover: whilst in the space which I myself construct in thought—the space of ordinary Geometry—the three angles of a triangle add up to 180° exactly, it is no longer so when I envisage another and perhaps more real space. The sum of the angles will no longer be 180°, but may be larger. That is to say, besides the ordinary geometry handed down to us from Euclid other geometries are possible, for which the sum of the three angles of a triangle is by no means 180°.

Nineteenth century thinking went a long way in this direction, especially since Lobachevsky, and from this starting-point the question could not but arise: Are then the processes of the real world—the world we see and examine with our senses—ever to be taken hold of in a fully valid way with geometrical ideas derived from a space of our own conceiving? We must admit: the space which we conceive in thought is only thought. Nice as it is to cherish the idea that what takes place outside us partly accords with what we figure-out about it, there is no guarantee that it really is so. There is no guarantee that what is going on in the outer world does really work in such a way that we can fully grasp it with the Euclidean Geometry which we ourselves think out. Might it not be—the facts alone can tell—might it not be that the processes outside are governed by quite another geometry, and it is only we who by our own way of thinking first translate this into Euclidean geometry and all the formulae thereof?

In a word, if we only go by the resources of Natural Science as it is today, we have at first no means whatever of deciding, how our own geometrical or kinematical ideas are related to what appears to us in outer Nature. We calculate Nature's phenomena in the realm of Physics—we calculate and draw them in geometrical figures. Yet, are we only drawing on the surface after all, or are we penetrating to what is real in Nature when we do so? What is there to tell? If people once begin to reflect deeply enough in modern Science—above all in Physics—they will then see that they are getting no further. They will only emerge from the blind alley if they first take the trouble to find out what is the origin of all our phoronomical—arithmetical, geometrical and kinematical—ideas. What is the origin of these, up to and including our ideas of movement purely as movement, but not including the forces? Whence do we get these ideas? We may commonly believe that we get them on the same basis as the ideas we gain when we go into the outer facts of Nature and work upon them with our reason. We see with our eyes and hear with our ears. All that our senses thus perceive,—we work upon it with our intellect in a more primitive way to begin with, without calculating, or drawing it geometrically, or analyzing the forms of movement. We have quite other categories of thought to go on when our intellect is thus at work on the phenomena seen by the senses. But if we now go further and begin applying to what goes on in the outer world the ideas of “scientific” arithmetic and algebra, geometry and kinematics, then we are doing far more—and something radically different. For we have certainly not gained these ideas from the outer world. We are applying ideas which we have spun out of our own inner life. Where then do these ideas come from? That is the cardinal question. Where do they come from? The truth is, these ideas come not from our intelligence—not from the intelligence which we apply when working up the ideas derived from sense-perception. They come in fact from the intelligent part of our Will. We make them with our Will-system—with the volitional part of our soul.

The difference is indeed immense between all the other ideas in which we live as intelligent beings and on the other hand the geometrical, arithmetical and kinematical ideas. The former we derive from our experience with the outer world; these on the other hand—the geometrical, the arithmetical ideas—rise up from the unconscious part of us, from the Will-part which has its outer organ in the metabolism. Our geometrical ideas above all spring from this realm; they come from the unconscious in the human being. And if you now apply these geometrical ideas (I will say “geometrical” henceforth to represent the arithmetical and algebraic too) to the phenomena of light or sound, then in your process of knowledge you are connecting, what arises from within you, with what you are perceiving from without. In doing so you remain utterly unconscious of the origin of the geometry you use. You unite it with the external phenomena, but you are quite unconscious of its source. So doing, you develop theories such as the wave-theory of light, or Newton's corpuscular theory,—it matters not which one it is. You develop theories by uniting what springs from the unconscious part of your being with what presents itself to you in conscious day-waking life. Yet the two things do not directly belong to one-another. They belong as little, my dear Friends, as the idea-forming faculty which you unfold when half-asleep belongs directly to the outer things which in your dreaming, half-asleep condition you perceive. In anthroposophical lectures I have often given instances of how the dream is wont to symbolize. An undergraduate dreams that at the door of the lecture-theatre he gets involved in a quarrel. The quarrel grows in violence; at last they challenge one-another to a duel. He goes on dreaming: the duel is arranged, they go out into the forest, he sees himself firing the shot,—and at the moment he wakes up. A chair has fallen over. This was the impact which projected itself forward into the dream. The idea-forming faculty has indeed somehow linked up with the outer phenomenon, but in a merely symbolizing way,—in no way consistent with the real object. So too, what in your geometrical and phoronomical thinking you fetch up from the subconscious part of your being, when you connect it with the phenomena of light. What you then do has no other value for reality than what finds expression in the dream when symbolizing an objective fact such as the fall and impact of the chair. All this elaboration of the outer world—optical, acoustic and even thermal to some extent (the phenomena of warmth)—by means of geometrical, arithmetical and kinematical thought-forms, is in point of fact a dreaming about Nature. Cool and sober as it may seem, it is a dream—a dreaming while awake. Moreover, until we recognize it for what it is, we shall not know where we are in our Natural Science, so that our Science gives us reality. What people fondly believe to be the most exact of Sciences, is modern mankind's dream of Nature.

But it is different when we go down from the phenomena of light and sound, via the phenomena of warmth, into the realm we are coming into with these rays and radiations, belonging as they do to the science of electricity. For we then come into connection with what in outer Nature is truly equivalent to the Will in Man. The realm of Will in Man is equivalent to this whole realm of action of the cathode rays, canal rays, Roentgen rays. \(\alpha\)-, \(\beta\)- and \(\gamma\)-rays and so on. It is from this very realm—which, once again, is in the human being the realm of Will,—it is from this that there arises what we possess in our mathematics, in our geometry, in our ideas of movement. These therefore are the realms, in Nature and in Man, which we may truly think of as akin to one-another. However, human thinking has in our time not yet gone far enough, really to think its way into these realms. Man of today can dream quite nicely, thinking out wave-theories and the like, but he is not yet able to enter with real mathematical perception into that realm of phenomena which is akin to the realm of human Will, in which geometry and arithmetic originate. For this, our arithmetical, algebraical and geometrical thinking must in themselves become more saturated with reality. It is along these lines that physical science should now seek to go.

Nowadays, if you converse with physicists who were brought up in the golden age of the old wave-theory, you will find many of them feeling a little uncanny about these new phenomena, in regard to which ordinary methods of calculation seem to break down in so many places. In recent times the physicists have had recourse to a new device. Plain-sailing arithmetical and geometrical methods proving inadequate, they now introduce a kind of statistical method. Taking their start more from the outer empirical data, they have developed numerical relations also empirical in kind. They then use the calculus of probabilities. Along these lines it is permissible to say: By all means let us calculate some law of Nature; it will hold good throughout a certain series, but then there comes a point where it no longer works.

There are indeed many things like this in modern Physics,—very significant moments where they lose hold of the thought, yet in the very act of losing it get more into reality. Conceivably for instance, starting from certain rigid ideas about the nature of a gas or air under the influence of warmth and in relation to its surroundings, a scientist of the past might have proved with mathematical certainty that air could not be liquefied. Yet air was liquefied, for at a certain point it emerged that the ideas which did indeed embrace the prevailing laws of a whole series of facts, ceased to hold good at the end of this series. Many examples might be cited. Reality today—especially in Physics—often compels the human being to admit this to himself: “You with your thinking, with your forming of ideas, no longer fully penetrate into reality; you must begin again from another angle.”

We must indeed; and to do this, my dear Friends, we must become aware of the kinship between all that comes from the human Will—whence come geometry and kinematics—and on the other hand what meets us outwardly in this domain that is somehow separated from us and only makes its presence known to us in the phenomena of the other pole. For in effect, all that goes on in these vacuum tubes makes itself known to us in phenomena of light, etc. Whatever is the electricity itself, flowing through there, is imperceptible in the last resort. Hence people say: If only we had a sixth sense—a sense for electricity—we should perceive it too, directly. That is of course wide of the mark. For it is only when you rise to Intuition, which has its ground in the Will, it is only then that you come into that region—even of the outer world—where electricity lives and moves. Moreover when you do so you perceive that in these latter phenomena you are in a way confronted by the very opposite than in the phenomena of sound or tone for instance. In sound or in musical tone, the very way man is placed into this world of sound and tone—as I explained in a former lecture—means that he enters into the sound or tone with his soul and only with his soul. What he then enters into with his body, is no more than what sucks-in the real essence of the sound or tone. I explained this some days ago; you will recall the analogy of the bell-jar from which the air has been pumped out. In sound or tone I am within what is most spiritual, while what the physicist observes (who of course cannot observe the spiritual nor the soul) is but the outer, so-called material concomitant, the movement of the wave. Not so in the phenomena of the realm we are now considering, my dear Friends. For as I enter into these, I have outside me not only the objective, so-called material element, but also what in the case of sound and tone is living in me—in the soul and spirit. The essence of the sound or tone is of course there in the outer world as well, but so am I. With these phenomena on the other hand, what in the case of sound could only be perceived in soul, is there in the same sphere in which—for sound—I should have no more than the material waves. I must now perceive physically, what in the case of sound or tone I can only perceive in the soul.

Thus in respect of the relation of man to the external world the perceptions of sound, and the perceptions of electrical phenomena for instance, are at the very opposite poles. When you perceive a sound you are dividing yourself as it were into a human duality. You swim in the elements of wave and undulation, the real existence of which can of course be demonstrated by quite external methods. Yet as you do so you become aware; herein is something far more than the mere material element. You are obliged to kindle your own inner life—your life of soul—to apprehend the tone itself. With your ordinary body—I draw it diagrammatically (the oval in Figure Xb)—you become aware of the undulations. You draw your ether—and astral body together, so that they occupy only a portion of your space. You then enjoy, what you are to experience of the sound or tone as such, in the thus inwarded and concentrated etheric-astral part of your being. It is quite different when you as human being meet the phenomena of this other domain, my dear Friends. In the first place there is no wave or undulation or anything like that for you to dive into; but you now feel impelled to expand what in the other case you concentrated (Figure Xc). In all directions, you drive your ether—and astral body out beyond your normal surface; you make them bigger, and in so doing you perceive these electrical phenomena.

Figure 10b
Figure 10c

Without including the soul and spirit of the human being, it will be quite impossible to gain a true or realistic conception of the phenomena of Physics. Ever-increasingly we shall be obliged to think in this way. The phenomena of sound and tone and light are akin to the conscious element of Thought and Ideation in ourselves, while those of electricity and magnetism are akin to the sub-conscious element of Will. Warmth is between the two. Even as Feeling is intermediate between Thought and Will, so is the outer warmth in Nature intermediate between light and sound on the one hand, electricity and magnetism on the other. Increasingly therefore, this must become the inner structure of our understanding of the phenomena of Nature. It can indeed become so if we follow up all that is latent in Goethe's Theory of Colour. We shall be studying the element of light and tone on the one hand, and of the very opposite of these—electricity and magnetism—on the other. As in the spiritual realm we differentiate between the Luciferic, that is akin to the quality of light, and the Ahrimanic, akin to electricity and magnetism, so also must we understand the structure of the phenomena of Nature. Between the two lies what we meet with in the phenomena of Warmth.

I have thus indicated a kind of pathway for this scientific realm,—a guiding line with which I wished provisionally to sum up the little that could be given in these few improvised hours. It had to be arranged so quickly that we have scarcely got beyond the good intentions we set before us. All I could give were a few hints and indications; I hope we shall soon be able to pursue them further. Yet, little as it is, I think what has been given may be of help to you—and notably to the Waldorf School teachers among you when imparting scientific notions to the children. You will of course not go about it in a fanatical way, for in such matters it is most essential to give the realities a chance to unfold. We must not get our children into difficulties. But this at least we can do: we can refrain from bringing into our teaching too many untenable ideas—ideas derived from the belief that the dream-picture which has been made of Nature represents actual reality. If you yourselves are imbued with the kind of scientific spirit with which these lectures—if we may take them as a fair example—have been pervaded, it will assuredly be of service to you in the whole way you speak with the children about natural phenomena.

Methodically too, you may derive some benefit. I am sorry it was necessary to go through the phenomena at such breakneck speed. Yet even so, you will have seen that there is a way of uniting what we see outwardly in our experiments with a true method of evoking thoughts and ideas, so that the human being does not merely stare at the phenomena but really thinks about them. If you arrange your lessons so as to get the children to think in connection with the experiments—discussing the experiments with them intelligently—you will develop a method, notably in the Science lessons, whereby these lessons will be very fruitful for the children who are entrusted to you.

Thus by the practical example of this course, I think I may have contributed to what was said in the educational lectures at the inception of the Waldorf School. I believe therefore that in arranging these scientific courses we shall also have done something for the good progress of our Waldorf School, which ought really to prosper after the good and very praiseworthy start which it has made. The School was meant as a beginning in a real work for the evolution of our humanity—a work that has its fount in new resources of the Spirit. This is the feeling we must have. So much is crumbling, of all that has developed hitherto in human evolution. Other and new developments must come in place of what is breaking down. This realization in our hearts and minds will give the consciousness we need for the Waldorf School. In Physics especially it becomes evident, how many of the prevailing ideas are in decay. More than one thinks, this is connected with the whole misery of our time. When people think sociologically, you quickly see where their thinking goes astray. Admittedly, here too most people fail to see it, but you can at least take notice of it; you know that sociological ways of thought will find their way into the social order of mankind. On the other hand, people fail to realize how deeply the ideas of Physics penetrate into the life of mankind. They do not know what havoc has in fact been wrought by the conceptions of modern Physics, terrible as these conceptions often are. In public lectures I have often quoted Hermann Grimm. Admittedly, he saw the scientific ideas of his time rather as one who looked upon them from outside. Yet he spoke not untruly when he said, future generations would find it difficult to understand that there was once a world so crazy as to explain the evolution of the Earth and Solar System by the theory of Kant and Laplace. To understand such scientific madness would not be easy for a future age, thought Hermann Grimm. Yet in our modern conceptions of inorganic Nature there are many features like the theory of Kant and Laplace. And you must realize how much is yet to do for the human beings of our time to get free of the ways of Kant and Konigsberg and all their kindred. How much will be to do in this respect, before they can advance to healthy, penetrating ways of thought!

Strange things one witnesses indeed from time to time, shewing how what is wrong on one side joins up with what is wrong on another. What of a thing like this? Some days ago—as one would say, by chance—I was presented with a reprint of a lecture by a German University professor. (He prides himself in this very lecture that there is in him something of Kant and Konigsberg!) It was a lecture in a Baltic University, on the relation of Physics and Technics, held on the 1st of May 1918,—please mark the date! This learned physicist of our time in peroration voices his ideal, saying in effect: The War has clearly shewn that we have not yet made the bond between Militarism and the scientific laboratory work of our Universities nearly close enough. For human progress to go on in the proper way, a far closer link must in future be forged between the military authorities and what is being done at our Universities. Questions of mobilization in future must include all that Science can contribute, to make the mobilization still more effective. At the beginning of the War we suffered greatly because the link was not yet close enough—the link which we must have in future, leading directly from the scientific places of research into the General Staffs of our armies.

Mankind, my dear Friends, must learn anew, and that in many fields. Once human beings make up their minds to learn anew in such a realm as Physics, they will be better prepared to learn anew in other fields as well. Those physicists who go on thinking in the old way, will never be so very far removed from the delightful coalition between the scientific laboratories and the General Staffs. How many things will have to alter! So may the Waldorf School be and remain a place where the new things which mankind needs can spring to life. In the expression of this hope, I will conclude our studies for the moment.