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Hermann von Helmholtz and the Foundations of Nineteenth-Century Science

Edited by David Cahan
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    Hermann von Helmholtz and the Foundations of Nineteenth-Century Science
    Book Description:

    Hermann von Helmholtz (1821-1894) was a polymath of dazzling intellectual range and energy. Renowned for his co-discovery of the second law of thermodynamics and his invention of the ophthalmoscope, Helmholtz also made many other contributions to physiology, physical theory, philosophy of science and mathematics, and aesthetic thought. During the late nineteenth century, Helmholtz was revered as a scientist-sage—much like Albert Einstein in this century. David Cahan has assembled an outstanding group of European and North American historians of science and philosophy for this intellectual biography of Helmholtz, the first ever to critically assess both his published and unpublished writings. It represents a significant contribution not only to Helmholtz scholarship but also to the history of nineteenth-century science and philosophy in general.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-91409-4
    Subjects: General Science

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-x)
  3. Illustrations
    (pp. xi-xii)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
    David Cahan
  5. Contributors
    (pp. xv-xviii)
  6. Abbreviations
    (pp. xix-xx)
  7. Chronological Listing of the Principal Events and Publications of Helmholtz’s Life and Career
    (pp. xxi-xxx)
  8. Introduction: Helmholtz at the Borders of Science
    (pp. 1-14)
    David Cahan

    Historians of modern science, philosophy, and cultural history have long recognized that Hermann von Helmholtz played a leading role in European cultural life during the second half of the nineteenth century. Helmholtz’s genius profoundly altered his principal scientific disciplines of physiology and physics, and influenced the related disciplines of medicine, mathematics, physical chemistry, psychology, and meteorology. Philosophy and the fine arts of painting and music were also affected by his work. His views on science and society were listened to and solicited by ministers of state, and late in his career he participated in the interactions of science and industry....

  9. Part One Physiologist

    • 1 Helmholtz and the German Medical Community
      (pp. 17-49)
      Arleen Tuchman

      “Medicine,” Helmholtz wrote in 1877, “was once my intellectual home, the one in which I grew up, and the wanderer best understands and is best understood in his native land.”¹ Yet only rarely does one think of Hermann von Helmholtz in a medical context. The traditional image of Helmholtz is rather of a scientist whose broad-ranging intellectual interests brought him into contact with physicists, physiologists, mathematicians, philosophers, and other learned individuals. Yet, as the above quotation indicates, Helmholtz began his intellectual wanderings within the nineteenth-century German medical community; he even practiced hospital medicine for five years before receiving his first...

    • 2 Experiment, Quantification, and Discovery: Helmholtz’s Early Physiological Researches, 1843–50
      (pp. 50-108)
      Kathryn M. Olesko and Frederic L. Holmes

      Before Hermann Helmholtz took up the work for which he became best known in sensory physiology, he published four investigations in general physiology between 1843 and 1850. The first, on putrefaction and fermentation, was well conceived but inconclusive. The next three—those on muscle and nerve physiology (1845, 1848, and 1850)—became classics. Each defined a problem of fundamental importance. Through an elegant experimental design often requiring precise quantitative results, each resolved issues posed simply yet decisively. Moreover, each germinated a thriving subfield of investigation within the burgeoning field of mid-nineteenth-century experimental physiology.

      Historians have examined Helmholtz’s experiments of 1843,...

    • 3 The Eye as Mathematician: Clinical Practice, Instrumentation, and Helmholtz’s Construction of an Empiricist Theory of Vision
      (pp. 109-153)
      Timothy Lenoir

      Helmholtz first sketched his theory of vision in a lecture in 1855 entitled “Über das Sehen des Menschen,” four years after he had entered the field of sensory physiology. As Helmholtz himself pointed out, his lecture was ironic in that, given the recent divisions between philosophers and natural scientists, a lecture honoring the 100th anniversary of the inaugural dissertation of Immanuel Kant, a philosopher, was being delivered by a natural scientist. Indeed, the lecture may not have seemed at all appropriate for a Kant celebration. For Kant had never written on vision, and, on the surface at least, empirical consideration...

    • 4 Consensus and Controversy: Helmholtz on the Visual Perception of Space
      (pp. 154-204)
      R. Steven Turner

      The scientific study of vision assumed its modern outlines between 1838 and 1868.¹ The chief architect of this new science was Hermann Helmholtz, and its paradigmatic statement was Helmholtz’s epicHandbuch der physiologischen Optik.² The successive volumes of theHandbuchoffered readers a brilliant theoretical synthesis, unified by a single philosophical perspective and buttressed by Helmholtz’s dazzling analytical skills. At the same time theHandbuchbrought war as well as peace to physiological optics. While it generated consensus and unity on many points, it also gave rise to fundamental and historically chronic disputes, above all concerning Helmholtz’s interpretation of the...

    • 5 Innovation through Synthesis: Helmholtz and Color Research
      (pp. 205-258)
      Richard L. Kremer

      At the end of his 1672 paper in which he presented a new theory of light and colors, Isaac Newton admitted: “But, to determine more absolutely, what light is, . . . and by what modes or actions it produceth in our minds the phantasms of colours, is not so easie. And I shall not mingle conjectures with certainties.”¹ As Newton realized, his theory of color was primarily a theory of light, a physical theory with light rays, prisms, angles of refraction, lenses, and barycentric diagrams as its chief “working objects.” Although theOpticksdid occasionally mingle conjectures about how...

    • 6 Sensation of Tone, Perception of Sound, and Empiricism: Helmholtz’s Physiological Acoustics
      (pp. 259-288)
      Stephan Vogel

      Helmholtz’s studies in physiological acoustics exemplify a primary characteristic of his scientific research as a whole: they simultaneously united several different subjects and employed several different methods of analysis. In his physiological acoustics Helmholtz conducted mathematical analyses of aerial vibrations in tubes; studied the physiological processes in the ear; and discussed problems in musical theory. In so doing, he designed new instruments; performed highly precise experiments; and formulated theories. His research in physiological acoustics, like his research in other areas of science, was of a broad, synthetic nature.

      This essay focuses on Helmholtz’s work in physiological acoustics. Section 2 briefly...

  10. Part Two Physicist

    • 7 Helmholtz’s Ueber die Erhaltung der Kraft: The Emergence of a Theoretical Physicist
      (pp. 291-333)
      Fabio Bevilacqua

      During the 1840s and early 1850s numerous formulations of the perennial attempt to show the “conversion” among natural phenomena and the “conservation” of something underlying them appeared. Despite a certain persistence of the term “force” (“Kraft”) among a few German physicists, by the 1860s the term “energy” was generally adopted, although it did not assume an unequivocal meaning. Before the century closed, several histories of energy conservation were written which raised controversies about priority and about the scientific and philosophical meaning of various formulations of the principle of conservation of energy.¹

      Among modern scholarship the most influential interpretation by far...

    • 8 Electrodynamics in Context: Object States, Laboratory Practice, and Anti-Romanticism
      (pp. 334-373)
      Jed Z. Buchwald

      Historians have long known that late nineteenth-century electrodynamics embraced more than the opposing poles of the field and the electric particle. In particular, during the 1870s Hermann von Helmholtz created and developed an alternative electrodynamics, one that historians have increasingly recognized to have provided the framework within which German physicists adapted field theory during the 1890s.¹ From this point of view Helmholtz’s theory has appeared rather like a halfway-point between the field, on the one hand, and electric particles governed by distance forces, on the other. It shared with field theory the idea of an ether, and with particle theories...

    • 9 Helmholtz’s Instrumental Role in the Formation of Classical Electrodynamics
      (pp. 374-402)
      Walter Kaiser

      During the last third of the nineteenth century Hermann von Helmholtz led an entire generation of German-speaking physicists to recognize the fecundity and the challenge of James Clerk Maxwell’s new electrodynamics. His midwifery in bringing Maxwell’s ideas into the German-speaking world and in nurturing the research abilities of young German-speaking physicists, above all his star student Heinrich Hertz as well as Ludwig Boltzmann, noticeably outstripped his own substantive intellectual contributions to electrodynamics. There is much irony in the fact that Hertz’s principal scientific achievement—the production and detection of transverse electromagnetic waves—not only provided, as Oliver Heaviside once wrote...

    • 10 Between Physics and Chemistry: Helmholtz’s Route to a Theory of Chemical Thermodynamics
      (pp. 403-431)
      Helge Kragh

      Mid-nineteenth-century chemistry was almost a purely experimental and classificatory science. In contrast to physics, it largely lacked theoretical foundations and showed little progress in supplying such foundations. Nearly all chemists merely collected data and analyzed specific compounds—an empiricist trend reinforced by the emergence in the 1830s of the powerful new subdiscipline of organic chemistry. In 1873, the distinguished chemist and historian of chemistry, Hermann Kopp, confessed that in “chemistry, no theory has yet been developed which attempts to derive the results of experience as necessary consequences of a definite principle. The theoretical principles of chemistry are still only applicable...

    • 11 Helmholtz’s Mechanical Foundation of Thermodynamics:
      (pp. 432-458)
      Günter Bierhalter

      From the seventeenth to the turn of the twentieth century, mechanics held center stage in the physical sciences. It did so not only by constituting the paradigm for physical thought in general but also by in good measure forming the basis of other physical disciplines. This point is especially true for post-1850 thermodynamics. As physicists created and absorbed the first two laws of thermodynamics, they came to understand the first law as the extension of the law of energy conservation to mechanics while remaining skeptical about the status and meaning of the second law, that concerning entropy, because its mechanical...

  11. Part Three Philosopher

    • 12 Force, Law, and Experiment: The Evolution of Helmholtz’s Philosophy of Science
      (pp. 461-497)
      Michael Heidelberger

      In Germany and beyond, Hermann von Helmholtz became a leading figure in shaping philosophy of science during the second half of the nineteenth century. In the mid-1840s, he helped establish the program of physiological reductionism. In the late 1860s, as his views further evolved, he came to share much common ground with contemporary antimetaphysical currents.¹ Scholars have long recognized that Helmholtz’s philosophical views had strong connections to Immanuel Kant’s epistemology and that his views contributed much to the rise of neo-Kantianism. For most scholars, the significance of Helmholtz’s own contributions to epistemology and philosophy of science lay precisely in his...

    • 13 Helmholtz’s Empiricist Philosophy of Mathematics: Between Laws of Perception and Laws of Nature
      (pp. 498-521)
      Robert DiSalle

      Helmholtz articulated his empiricist philosophy of science in its clearest form in two related controversies concerning space: the empiricist-nativist debate over the visual perception of spatial relations, and a debate with Kantian philosophers over the epistemological status of non-Euclidean geometry. In the first controversy, Helmholtz defended the empirical theory of space-perception, according to which distances in perceptual space are not given in sensation, but instead areinferredfrom sensation by habits acquired through experience. The theory’s most important specific claim was that visual perception of depth occurred not, as Helmholtz’s opponents believed, directly, but rather indirectly, through the mediation of...

    • 14 Helmholtz and Classicism: The Science of Aesthetics and the Aesthetics of Science
      (pp. 522-558)
      Gary Hatfield

      An avid musician and an erstwhile teacher of anatomy to artists, Hermann von Helmholtz made a lasting contribution to music theory through hisDie Lehre von den Tonempfindungen als physiologische Grundlage für die Theorie der Musik(1863) and he applied his optical expertise to the art of painting in lectures during the early 1870s. Although he largely eschewed the subject of aesthetics, neither developing nor espousing a full-scale aesthetic theory, he nonetheless brought his physiologcal and psychological researches to bear on selected aesthetic topics. Indeed, he advertised hisTonempfindungenas an attempt to connect physical and physiological acoustics with musical...

    • 15 Helmholtz and the Civilizing Power of Science
      (pp. 559-602)
      David Cahan

      Between 1853 and 1892 Hermann von Helmholtz delivered approximately twenty-five popular addresses on the nature, purposes, and results of science, on the optimum institutional and political conditions for scientific advance, on the relations of science and civilization, and on the work of various scientists. These lectures and speeches, which eventually appeared in a two-volume collection entitledVorträge und Redenand which by 1906 had reached the fifth and final edition, constitute the counterpart and natural complement to his three-volumeWissenschaftliche Abhandlungen, upon which they sometimes drew and to which they in part owed their existence.¹ They are science popularized; their...

  12. Bibliography
    (pp. 603-636)
  13. Index
    (pp. 637-667)
  14. Back Matter
    (pp. 668-670)