Teaching Science through History
Introduction || Contents || Resources  

What is light? What is color?

by Nancy Stowe

This module is based on debates about the nature of light and color surrounding Newton's theory of the late 1600s. Students learn the historical perspective in preparation for evaluating 17th-century optics. They then replicate two of Isaac Newton's well-known experiments on light and color and develop and defend a theorybased on their observations. Finally, they analyze the viewpoint of Newton's critics and the role of debate in scientific development.

  • Lesson 1: Developing Historical Perspective -- role-playing of historicial figures who made contributions in optics.
  • Lesson 2: Light and Prism Activity -- Students become Isaac Newton, a young natural philosopher studying at Trinity College in Cambridge, England in 1666, interested in learning about light and colors, and particularly on how to remove chromatic aberration from the image produced by refractive telescopes.
  • Lesson 3: Discussion of Light and Prism Activity & Introduction to Crucial Experiment -- discussion of why Newton channeled light through two prisms successively
  • Lesson 4: Newton's "Experimentum Crucis" -- Each student becomes a distinguished (well-established, well-known, and well-respected!!) member of the Royal Society and a 'modificationist,' someone who has shown how colors are produced when pure sunlight is refracted or reflected. This activity underscores the importance and difficulty of replication.
  • Lesson 5: Follow-up discussion, introduction to historical disagreement between Newton and Hooke, Pardies, Algarotti, and Huygens, highlighting the nature of scientific debate.

Open Word document.