Archive for April, 2008

Wilhelm Ostwald’s color theory

Wilhelm Ostwald’s color theory

Ostwald - Snip through a double-cone

Ostwald’s Color Primer – Snip through a double-cone

Expressed in our modern technical language, we can say that Ostwald attempted to construct a perceptual colour-system using non-empirical methods. In place of Munsell’s three parameters, he selected an alternative group of variables: namely, colour-content, white-content and black-content. […] We can thus formulate the guiding principle behind Ostwald’s theory of colour in the following way: the most universal mixture is the mixture of full colours, white and black. Each pigmented colour can be characterised by specifying the colour-content (at a certain colour-hue), white-content and black-content.

Ostwald on Education by W. W. Sawyer

Ostwald on Education by W. W. Sawyer

Friedrich Wilhelm Ostwald was one of the most colourful characters of his time […] A brilliant scientist and an inspiring teacher, he was a man of wide sympathies and varied interests. He campaigned vigorously and courageously for a number of causes; for example, one of his books, published in 1912 in the militarist and nationalistic Germany of Wilhelm II, called for “internationalism, pacifism and a systematic plan for the preservation of natural energy resources”. [1] He was intensely and outspokenly critical of the school system as it existed in that time and place, and made extensive studies relating to education.

Niles R. Holt about “Wilhelm Ostwald’s ‘The Bridge'”

Niles R. Holt: “Wilhelm Ostwald’s ‘The Bridge'” (via Ralph Dumain: “The Autodidact Project”)

One of the lesser‑known projects of the German physical chemist Wilhelm Ostwald, a 1909 Nobel laureate and one of the last major scientific figures to oppose atomism, was the creation of an association for the ‘organization’ of science. … Among the plethora of ‘unity of science’ efforts that became prominent during the years preceding the First World War, the Bridge was distinctive for Ostwald’s emphasis on the ‘international organization’ of science as a means of furthering ‘scientific effiiciency’. [2] Although its tenure was short—from 1909 to 1914—the Bridge became the centre of a number of projects intended to promote ‘scientific efficiency’ through ‘organization’.

Titel  of a Bridge publication by Ostwald

“The organization of organizers through the Bridge” – Title of a Bridge publication by Ostwald

From Energism, Ostwald claimed to have derived a ‘moral law of science’, the energetic imperative: ‘Do not waste energy, but transform it into a more useful form.’ [6] The ‘energetic imperative’ became, in turn, the basis for Ostwald’s stress on the ‘efficient organization’ of science. […] Ostwald, then, viewed the Bridge as a means of ‘organizing’, within the scientific community the ‘efficiency’ demanded by the ‘energetic imperative.’ All projects of the Bridge were to be ‘applications of the single fundamental idea of organization.’ [7] One project of the Bridge—a project to promote Esperanto as the exclusive language of international scientific conferences—resulted from Ostwald’s insistence that an auxiliary language would facilitate ‘more direct communication’ between scientists and eliminate the ‘energy waste’ involved in translations. Ostwald described still another project—the World Format—as an effort to ‘maximize the efficient use of energy’ by standardizing publication formats. The World Format was a standardized format for published scientific reports and abstracts; it even included specific dimensions for the size of paper on which reports were to be printed. Similarly, Ostwald believed that the Bridge would promote ‘efficiency’ in science by attempting to extend the metric system of weights and measures ‘into English speaking countries’.

From: Holt, Niles R. ‘Wilhelm Ostwald’s “The Bridge”’, British Journal for the History of Science, vol. 10, Part 2, no. 35, July 1977, pp. 146-150. See also: Niles R. Holt, A Note on Wilhelm Ostwald’s Energism, Isis, 61 (1970) 3, 386-389

Scientific creativity as a combinatorial process

Still today the connection between creativity and combinatorics is the topic of research.

One example is the work of Dean Keith Simonton:

Jan J. Koenderink on Ostwald’s color theory

Jan J. Koenderink: Colour, old age, and accepted truth

What Jan Koenderink wrote below, is also true for me! 😎

Now and then I become so much interested in a person’s work that I really want to know more. I then read all I can dig up – the science, the reactions of contemporaries, and the bits and pieces that might give me glimpses of personal life. The last occasion this happened to me concerned Ostwald. It turned out to be an often surprising, thus very entertaining, and also rewarding exercise.

View in Ostwald’s house in Grossbothen, Saxony

Jan J. Koenderink, Colour, old age, and accepted truth, in: Perception 28 (1999) 1, 1-4

Creative Combinatorics in Ostwald’s philosophy

Already in 1910 Ostwald mentioned in his philosophy of nature (“Natural Philosophy”, 1910) the importance of combinatorics for his philosophy and for creativity:

There is a science, the Theory of Combinations, which gives the rules by which, in given elements or characteristics, the kind and number of the possible groups can be found. The theory of combinations enables us to obtain a complete table and survey of all possible complex conceptswhich can be formed from given simple ones (whether they be really elementary concepts, or only relatively so) . When in any field of science the fundamental concepts have been combined in this manner, a complete survey can be had of all the possible parts of this science by means of the theory of combinations (p.71).

View in Ostwald’s House in Grossbothen

Thus combinatory schematization serves not only to bring the existing content of science into such order that each single thing has its assigned place, but the groups which have thereby been found to be vacant, to which as yet nothing of experience corresponds, also point to the places in which science can be completed by new discoveries (p.73).

Ostwald and the net

Wilhelm Ostwald’s philosophy of nature was first published in English under the title “Natural Philosophy” (translated by Thomas Seltzer, New York, Holt, 1910). “The original of this book was published as volume I in Reclam’s Bücher der Naturwissenschaft.”

Ostwald about the net of knowledge:

The same is true of an individual. No matter how limited the circle of his knowledge, it is a part of the great net, and therefore possesses the quality by virtue of which the other parts readily join it as soon as they reach the consciousness and knowledge of the individual. The man who thus enters the realm of science acquires advantages which may be compared to those of a telephone in his residence. … The mere beginner in learning, therefore, when receiving the most elementary instruction in school, or from his parents, or even from his personal experiences in his surroundings, is grasping one or more threads of the mighty net, … And this net has the valuable, even precious quality of being the same that joins the greatest and most comprehensive intellects in mankind to one another (pp. 7-8).


Picture from Wilhelm Ostwald, Die Welt der Formen (The world of forms), 1922.