Winter Light, Goethe’s Death Bed, and Classroom Revelations

  • 2020-21
Winter Light, Goethe’s Death Bed, and Classroom Revelations

Something extraordinary happened on the last day of the construction of the Channel Tunnel between England and France. The building work was completed. They were about to seal both ends, when the chief engineer received news of an orange glow within the depths of the tunnel.

The engineer feared the worst. A fire - a disaster, potentially threatening decades of work. Fire engines gathered noisily at both ends, in Calais and Folkstone. But in fact the fear was unrealised. There was no fire. Instead, a minor miracle had taken place.

The setting sun, low in the sky, had directly aligned with the opening of the tunnel in France and created a light that travelled its whole 22-mile length to emerge as an orange afterglow on the other side in England.

This could never occur again because the ends were closed-up shortly afterwards. Nevertheless, the engineer reported himself deeply moved by the experience.

Of course, the sensation echoes a prehistoric relish for light aligning with ancient monuments, as it does at Stone Henge in England on the summer solstice, at Machu Picchu in Peru, at Newgrange in Ireland, and at the Great Sphinx and Pyramid of Khafre in Egypt. 

Light has a part to play in many religious festivals, and its language saturates religious ritual. The King James Version of the Bible in its opening verse has God declaring, ‘Let there be light’. On his death bed, the German poet Goethe - who had developed his own theories of colour, with darkness as an active ingredient – begged famously for ‘More light’.

In Dante’s La Divina Commedia, the light cycle is clear, as the poet descends into the deepest darkness of Hell in the Inferno before ascending later into the splendour and illumination of heaven in the Paradiso.  

This tension between light and darkness resonates through the history of religion, philosophy, art and culture. It is part of a moral language of good and evil, right and wrong, and carries an emotional charge of hope and despair.

It is interesting, in fact, how first religion and then science both claimed the language of light as a motif in their narratives. The dawn of the Scientific Age was called the Enlightenment, prioritising the light of reason over the superstitious fog of religious faith.

We can see the similarities between religion and science illustrated in paintings. Notice how the focus of light in scenes of Christ’s nativity is echoed and mirrored in the depictions of scientific experiments (the latter brilliantly enacted by Joseph Wright of Derby in the canvas below, right).

We speak of illumination when we receive ideas or revelations. Isaac Newton combined both religious faith and scientific rigour when separating white light out into the spectrum of seven colours. In fact, we are told now there are only six discernible colours.

Newton knew from biblical scripture that ‘seven’ was a magical number and so persuaded himself he saw seven distinct colours when arguably, to the naked eye, indigo and violet are virtually the same. Religion and science merged back into white light.

It’s revealing that only the hotter colours – red, orange, yellow – have been chosen to designate zones during the current Covid emergency: a vivid signal of the pandemic and its threats, and perhaps a reflection of the emotional heat it generates.

It is a scientific conundrum that light seems simultaneously to be formed both of waves and particles. No one fully understands why this is, but the physicist Robert Oppenheimer in a Reith Lecture delivered in 1953 used the dual nature of light as a metaphor for human endeavour.

Think of politics for instance, Oppenheimer said, which can be understood both as addressing the needs of the individual (the equivalent of the single particle) as well as the needs of the collective (the equivalent of the wave). It can be both.

While at first it might seem a contradiction, the dual nature of light gives us a useful way of thinking about the complexities of life. Seemingly competing and incompatible things can co-exist at the same time. This might be mysterious, but it can also be intellectually helpful, allowing us to expand our thinking in terms of both/and, rather than merely either/or.

Today, we are all under a moral and environmental compulsion to save light and not to waste it. At the same time we crave it and desperately need it in our lives. 

In these dark times, I hope that schools are also strong sources of light, allowing reason and free thought to flourish, promoting personal growth, developing intellectual curiosity in both science and the arts, and generating hope – a kind of metaphorical light – for the future.

‘The sun never knew how great it was until it hit the side of a building,’ said the architect Louis Kahn.

We hope that our students experience this same sense of revelation, reflecting back their own potential and capacity for light, and generating their own afterglow.

Chris Greenhalgh
Principal & CEO

  • Education
  • Science