Understanding quantum physics

Johannes Kühl

Twentieth-century physics has produced some astonishing discoveries that make thinking about its models confusing. In classical terms, it is easy to understand that a negatively charged chloride ion and a positively charged sodium ion attract each other and thus form NaCl, i.e. salt. But why do hydrogen and carbon combine to form methane with so-called electron pair bonds, where both the electrons that form the pair are negatively charged? Chemists answer this question by saying that it happens for reasons explainable by quantum physics. In other words: "we don't understand it, but that is how it is".

We could cite similar examples. Quantum physics is incomprehensible with classical thinking. But, is it at all comprehensible via mathematical formulae? This points to an important distinction that famous physicists such as Richard Feynman, and probably Niels Bohr too, had noticed: that we have worked something out mathematically does not mean that we understand the essence of it. But for Waldorf schools, and in fact for culture as a whole, it matters whether we can point a way towards understanding, or whether we must simply say that it is incomprehensible.

In the context of Rudolf Steiner's epistemology, this question means: is thinking coming up against a boundary of knowledge here? Or have we not yet formed the appropriate concepts for understanding quantum physics?

We want to examine this question in our project "Understanding quantum physics".

Of course, we are not the first to pose this question. The issue of "interpretation of quantum mechanics" has been dealt with by so many great minds, also in connection with didactics, that it seems presumptuous to participate in it. On the other hand, apart from the books by Georg Unger (Vom Bilden physikalischer Begriffe, Vol. III) from the sixties of last century, and by Jos Verhulst (Der Glanz von Kopenhagen, 1994) there are hardly any publications out of anthroposophy on the subject, especially if we leave out of consideration the more mathematical works of Peter Gschwind and others. So the above questions pose a challenge that we would like to tackle. A large circle of specialist colleagues is ready to assist the project with advice. 


Emission and absorption phenomena

A supplementary project to the project "Understanding quantum physics"

Matthias Rang, Jiri Arion Rose and Johannes Kühl

Next to the photo effect, line spectra of incandescent gases are among the most important phenomena that have led to the development of quantum physics. The observation of discrete spectral lines of hydrogen was used by Niels Bohr to formulate his model of the atom and thus to postulate, ad hoc, discrete energy states in the atom.

This historical event is interesting from a didactic point of view because we can occasionally come across formulations that derive the discrete spectral lines from the energy levels. According to modern understanding, that is not incorrect, but it turns the matter "on its head" and, to more precise consideration, represents a circular argument. This is because it is not the spectral lines that are derived from discrete energy levels but the reverse, i.e. the energy levels from the spectral lines – and at that time this was hard to accept because it contradicted classical physics.

In this project we are trying to put the argumentation back "on its feet" by not making the model of the atom a precondition for explaining the phenomena, or using it as a tool. On the contrary, we aim to clarify the particular phenomena and experimental results themselves as a precondition for the setting up of quantum hypotheses.

Central to this is the carrying out of an experiment in which an emission phenomenon (temperature radiation), to be understood in a more or less classical way, is carried over into an emission to be understood quantum mechanically (low-pressure gas discharge, i.e. line spectrum) – and vice versa. The design is intended to enable this transition to be continuous. We hope that in this experiment we can demonstrate that the transition from the realm of classical physics to the realm of quantum physics does not have to be understood as discrete.


completed projects:

Experiment FARBE – Experiment COLOUR

An interactive exhibition on colour

The year 2010 was the two-hundredth anniversary of the publication of Goethe's Theory of Colour. On 11 May 1810 he sent the first copy of it to Frau von Stein with the words: "I don't regret having devoted so much time to it. It helped me reach a culture that would have been hard for me to reach from another direction".

Occasioned by this anniversary, we developed an interactive exhibition on the Theory of Colour in which visitors can experiment for themselves.

Its aims are that the visitors should: 

  • experience joy, amazement and trust in their own perceptions during colour experiments,
  • get an impression of what Goethe contributed and be able to question superficial opinions about his Theory of Colour
  • be able to discover and wonder at the astonishing symmetry and order in the colour phenomena.

We think that despite the enormous development that physics has undergone in the last two hundred years, it is still helpful to concern ourselves with Goethe's intentions. His "explorative experimentation" and his didactic skill can help us better to get to know a realm of nature and to improve our understanding of physics. In this we make the visitor part of the exhibition at all times, because, for Goethe, observer and nature should never be separated. His conception of science was based much more on the "eternal truth that we mirror ourselves in the world and the world mirrors itself in us".

The exhibition was shown in 2010 at the Goetheanum and was from 15 May to 2 October 2011 in Järna (Sweden) as part of the colour events See! Colour!. In subsequent years it will be at various places, though mostly only part of the exhibition.


Information on the exhibition here: www.experimentfarbe.ch


Complementary spectra as self-determining partial phenomena in optics

Phenomenological approaches to spectroscopy and dispersion

Matthias Rang

Some years ago most of the phenomena of optics were re-examined with a phenomenological approach orientated to Goethe's scientific method. However, the area of prismatic colours and spectroscopy has hardly been touched on and then only in relation to certain aspects. The aim of this project is a more comprehensive phenomena-orientated description of the phenomena in this area including developing technical measurement procedures that can be used in contemporary university research.

For this we have developed an experiment that makes visible complementary spectra in only one set-up. This produces the two complementary spectra, not side-by-side as phenomena of differing circumstances, but instead in a single set-up simultaneously. This makes it clear that the two spectra reciprocally determine each other in their production. They are thus partial phenomena of a phenomenon.

Showing only one of these spectra presupposes the experimental suppression of the other. Therefore, complementary spectra are not phenomena that are mutually exclusive but instead bring about each other. They are the two "faces" of a single thing.

We have completed the technical and constructional development of the above-mentioned experiment into a teaching aid that is suitable for application. This can be obtained from the teaching materials department of the Pädagogischen Forschungsstelle (Pedagogical Research Centre) in Kassel, together with a detailed handout.

The experiment we developed has been made accessible to a wide public as an exhibit of the exhibition Experiment FARBE, and has been displayed at various other places.

We thank the Mahle Foundation and the Rudolf Steiner Fund for Scientific Research e.V. for the financial support for this project.


An overview of the published literature can be found in the Institute's publication list.


Technology and sub-nature

Johannes Kühl

One of the Science Section's tasks is to engage with contemporary questions and look for answers to them. In this respect we are constantly involved at the Institute with the relation of the human being to technology. So far, we have examined Rudolf Steiner's concept of "sub-nature" and, with it as background, we have developed an approach to electricity and technology. Here it became increasingly clear that the "morality" of a technology is not just a question for the technology being applied, but what really matters is that we hold in our consciousness the circumstances in which we place ourselves through using the technology. For instance, electricity tends to conceal such circumstances: "We get power out of the wall socket ..." Thus sub-nature arises as a functionality (apparently) isolated from the normal cosmos – but freedom in Rudolf Steiner's sense can arise only when all the circumstances are not only considered but also intended.


The speed of light: the connection between time and space

Florian Theilmann and Georg Maier

What is light: a stream of flying particles or a manifestation of electromagnetic radiation? Our Institute has worked for many years on the concept of light, and much of the fruit of this work has been put into practice in Waldorf schools. Starting with the experience of one's own vision, light can be understood as the phenomenal connections between colours and brightness, and this allows the laws of optics to be fitted in with the results of modern physics. Hitherto, an exception has been the speed of light measured in experiments – if light has a speed, then must it not be a flow of some kind?

We carried out a classical experiment on this and thoroughly examined it, an expenditure of effort that in the course of the normal school curriculum is probably impossible for teachers or pupils without special resources. It is clear that the associated ideas of something moving ignores the 'optical character' of the experiment. The same experiment, looked at according to optical principles, is not a picture of a moving stream, but an experience of the view out into space being at the same time a view of something "earlier". Einstein's ideas on this theme can be  better understood with the help of the experiment, and, besides this, Steiner's sketchy portrayal of earlier evolutionary stages of the world prove to be an exact formulation of the facts.


Understanding mechanics

Florian Theilmann

What began with the intention to provide Waldorf teachers with helpful teaching material led to very fundamental questions what does it mean when pupils "understand physics", and what do they need for this? How can we "do physics" as a science and not just as mathematics? With these issues as background, in the last year we have developed the subject material and practical teaching of further themes in mechanics, tried them out in lessons, and published them (see list of publications).

A focus of this work was statics: how do tension and compression express themselves in their different ways. Where do we find them? How do we deal technically with them? It is exciting to see how deep these somewhat simple questions lead. In this respect  the human body is revealed as a marvel of mechanics: it  anticipates in one go all the laborious "tricks" of construction engineers. Here a Goethean approach leads to modern non-classical physical concepts, and at the same time many of the barely appreciated indications of Steiner in his science courses 'suddenly' find their justification. Thus in future we would like to understand these courses even better as sources of fruitful ideas for teaching. After all, Steiner gave these courses to teachers!

Work on a comprehensive presentation of this approach to mechanics is complete and the results are published in book form (Theilmann, Florian: Expeditionen in die Mechanik. Themen und Motive für einen erscheinungsorientierten Physikunterricht. Stuttgart 2006).


Chemistry: the nature of nitrogen

Martin Rozumek

This three-year project on the nature of nitrogen has come to its preliminary conclusion. The core issue regarding methodology and content was to create a bridge between the chemistry of nitrogen and Rudolf Steiner's characterisation of the element. Steiner spoke in various places about a relation between nitrogen and the astral, i.e. what in the world produces inwardness, sensitivity, and consciousness, as well as the quickening, forming and differentiation of life. How can we understand the connection between this supersensible realm of the world and the chemical phenomena accessible to the senses? Here is the key for an independent and productive engagement with Steiner's suggestions for agriculture (among other things the biodynamic preparations), medicine (understanding medicaments) and Waldorf teaching (chemistry, and the didactics of chemistry).

By means of experiments and the processes connected with them, the materiality and chemical behaviour of nitrogen are investigated and vividly described. Characterisations through pictorial gestures allow the individuality of nitrogen to emerge in the realm of substance. On the other hand, by studying Steiner's comments on astral thought-movements we can notice that they are related to those on the characterisation of nitrogen. To this extent, the latter can be read as a picture of the astral in the realm of substance.

Thus, all in all, the result was an extended picture of nitrogen, particularly regarding its agricultural significance. The following sketch of the key points of it encompass the nitrogen cycle of the earth. Here it appears to be less a nitrogen cycle but rather a complex network of relationships. In this, the somewhat psychomorphic descriptions already indicate a connection with the astral.

In the unfolding of plant life between terrestrial and cosmic conditions, nitrogen functions as a "selfless" mediator of the formative process in the plant. Without directly influencing it, nitrogen envelops the plant as air-atmosphere and mediates light and warmth from outside the Earth. This allows the suppression of the vegetative life in favour of stronger form and more differentiated development of he plant. The rich, mobile and frequently striking behaviour of its compounds in the mineral-aqueous realm is understandable from its relatedness to air and its striving to return to the air as its natural home. In its activity together with other elements, nitrogen demonstrates from its mobility that it is suitable to give expression to changing conditions through changes in substances. To this extent it can be regarded as "sensitive" (Steiner). In the process matrix of the soil, "sensitivity", mobility between forms of living and mineral substance, and the "selfless" character of nitrogen, all act together to the effect that the given conditions of the location are reflected in the soil relationships and are mediated in the plant.

In the plant, nitrogen acts ultimately as a "tractor of the living" (Steiner) by becoming concentrated in tissues before growth starts there. It proceeds growth and pulls the plant upwards towards light and warmth. The plant has to overcome the mineral nature of the nitrogen that it has taken up, and is stimulated in its living process by this resistance. Nitrogen works metabolically as a formative element in enzymes. As chlorophyll it finally helps the plant to open itself to the light. This closes the circle. Inside just as outside the plant, nitrogen meets us as mediator of the light that shapes the plant. It appears permeable as a mediator, a creator of relationships and a formative element in the wholeness of nature – aspects of the "bearer of the astral".

In this it is part of the group of "protein elements" (carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, hydrogen, sulphur and phosphorus) and with these is involved in the whole context of life. If it is applied without taking this into consideration, e.g. in large quantities as mineral fertiliser, then, besides a one-sided effect on plants, environmental problems result, such as nitrate pollution of groundwater. This mirrors the fact that the mobility of nitrogen has to be constantly "tamed" through its being embedded in living contexts – a primary function of the biodynamic preparations. On the other hand, dealing with nitrogen set loose from such contexts creates new kinds of "relationships", for example between the way farming is conducted and our drinking water quality.


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