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Helmholtz: From Enlightenment to Neuroscience

Michel Meulders
Translated and edited by Laurence Garey
Copyright Date: 2010
Published by: MIT Press
Pages: 256
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  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    Although Hermann von Helmholtz was one of most remarkable figures of nineteenth-century science, he is little known outside his native Germany. Helmholtz (1821--1894) made significant contributions to the study of vision and perception and was also influential in the painting, music, and literature of the time; one of his major works analyzed tone in music. This book, the first in English to describe Helmholtz's life and work in detail, describes his scientific studies, analyzes them in the context of the science and philosophy of the period -- in particular the German Naturphilosophie -- and gauges his influence on today's neuroscience.Helmholtz, trained by Johannes Mü ller, one of the best physiologists of his time, used a resolutely materialistic and empirical scientific method in his research. His work, eclipsed at the beginning of the twentieth century by new ideas in neurophysiology, has recently been rediscovered. We can now recognize in Helmholtz's methods -- which were based on his belief in the interconnectedness of physiology and psychology -- the origins of neuroscience.

    eISBN: 978-0-262-28964-1
    Subjects: History of Science & Technology, Biological Sciences

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Author’s Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-x)
    Michel Meulders
  4. Translator’s Introduction
    (pp. xi-xiv)
    Laurence Garey

    I first met Michel Meulders in November 1981 at a conference in Algiers, after which we traveled together exploring some of the treasures of the Algerian desert. I have remained in contact with him ever since. It was a great pleasure for me when in the summer of 2001, while he was staying in Switzerland, he presented me with a copy of his biography of Helmholtz, soon after its publication, and subsequently agreed for me to translate it.

    Michel has a long and outstanding career in neuroscience, and he lived the profound changes in neurophysiology of the 1960s.

    Born and...

  5. Preface
    (pp. xv-xviii)
  6. Prelude
    (pp. 1-10)

    After passing through the majestic Brandenburg Gate at Potsdam, the young teacher from the PotsdamGymnasium, August Ferdinand Helmholtz, 5 headed toward the palace of Sanssouci at a slow, measured pace. This stroll was a habit for him; he liked to reflect on philosophy, and at these moments he felt intensely free, freer even than with his friends at home, where he did not always dare express his deepest thoughts in view of how overwhelmingly suspicious the Prussian authorities were toward intellectuals. It was the morning of August 31, 1821. His wife, Caroline Penne, daughter of an artillery officer and...

  7. 1 Helmholtz: From Potsdam to the Pépinière
    (pp. 11-16)

    To which of these citations, neither of which can claim to be devoid of arrogance or conceit, would Hermann Helmholtz, whose career and work we shall now pursue, have rallied? Doubtless to the second because, as one of his closest friends Emil du Bois-Reymond reported, he considered one of the main principles of natural science to be that nature, including perception, thought, and free will, should be explicable, without which all research in the field would be senseless.¹

    As to the citation by Hippocrates, he considered it as the standard of old deductive medicine, against which he had always reacted...

  8. 2 Natural Philosophy in Young Helmholtz’s Time
    (pp. 17-42)

    As Helmholtz began his studies around 1840, medical teaching was nearing the end of a long reform in which the traditional curriculum had, according to him, gradually given way to a new scientific spirit that rejected tradition and insisted rather on a basis of personal experience. The ideas of John Brown² and Albrecht von Haller,³ as also of vitalism (see chapter 4), were on the decline, and the excesses of the deductive methods of ancient medicine were no more than a dogmatic ruin.⁴ But what was really the situation? Romanticism and natural philosophy had profoundly impregnated the theory and practice...

  9. 3 Johannes Müller, “Man of Iron”
    (pp. 43-54)

    These verses were cited by Johannes Müller on the reverse of the cover of hisZur vergleichenden Physiologie des Gesichtssinnes

    Born in Koblenz in 1801, the year that the Treaty of Luneville decided its attachment to France as capital of the department of Rhine and Moselle, Müller began his university studies in Bonn in 1819. But before registering, he spent several days wondering whether he should read law, as his friends advised, or theology, as his mother wanted. After mature reflection, shut in his room, he opted for medicine, which would allow him, as he said, to know what his...

  10. 4 Vitalism: The Best and the Worst of Things
    (pp. 55-70)

    The doctorate that young Hermann Helmholtz had just obtained with distinction at the age of 21 by no means marked the end of his studies. There remained a year of internship at La Charité, which obliged him to spend a few weeks in each important service of the university hospital, after which he would need to start his military service and pass the state examination that would qualify him as a physician.

    When he finished his internship in September 1843, he was posted to the garrison at Potsdam, where he prepared his final examination that he passed two years later...

  11. 5 Helmholtz and the Understanding of Nature
    (pp. 71-84)

    The year 1847 was certainly a good one for Helmholtz. His physiological experiments had achieved most of their initial aims, had enabled him to perfect his own experimental method, and had earned him a good reputation for emphasizing the place of physics and chemistry in his work. What was more, the scientist in him had avoided destroying the man in him: His need for beauty and culture, and his obvious desire to share his sentiments, had successfully paved the way to the conquest of the heart and mind of a young woman with whom he hoped to share his life...

  12. Intermezzo with Artists
    (pp. 85-88)

    Emil du Bois-Reymond is credited with saying that conserving Helmholtz for science was as important as conserving force. This was far from being a joke for meanwhile their friend Brücke had been offered the chair of physiology in the University of Königsberg following the death of Burdach. Brücke held the more remunerative than prestigious post of professor of anatomy at the Academy of Art in Berlin, which had enabled him to pursue his research in Müller’s laboratory. So his post became vacant and would normally have been filled by du Bois-Reymond, the senior assistant. But he wanted to continue his...

  13. 6 In Search of Lost Time
    (pp. 89-106)

    In search of lost time. … This is not Proust but the plan for Helmholtz’s research program on neuromuscular physiology that he set himself when he arrived in Königsberg where he had just been appointed. The “lost time” was what he had been able to demonstrate between an electrical stimulus to a frog’s nerve and the resulting muscular contraction. At the end of his research a year later, he was able to state to the Academy of Sciences in Paris, through the intermediary of his protector Alexander von Humboldt: “I found that for the nervous stimulation to arrive from the...

  14. 7 Goethe and His Vision of Nature
    (pp. 107-118)

    The scientific Goethe was a disturbing figure from the outset because his strangely capricious mind flitted like a butterfly over the diverse mysteries of nature that he endlessly explored over and over again. To expand his understanding of nature was always an imperative task for him, as if he found in this the indispensable breath of poetic inspiration. In his works, poetry and science were always harmonious traveling companions. Indeed Wilhelm von Humboldt, brother of Alexander, philologist and founder of Berlin University in 1809, noted in his account of Goethe’s journey to Italy that poetic creativity in all true poets...

  15. 8 The Dispute about Colors: Goethe or Helmholtz?
    (pp. 119-136)

    Goethe conducted his morphological research in relative peace despite the polite indifference or frank disapproval of certain of his contemporaries. But things were very different when he began to study optics and the perception of color. Wielding the oriflamme of one indivisible nature, he waged a veritable crusade against mathematics and laboratory apparatus. Only recognizing information acquired through the sense organs as trustworthy, he vented his wrath on the astronomer and physicist Newton, guilty in his eyes of a most damaging error for the human mind. He even compared him to an astronomer who on a whim wanted to put...

  16. 9 The Founding Regard
    (pp. 137-152)

    Continuing his research in Königsberg, and now dean of the faculty, Helmholtz nevertheless made many journeys, notably to England, where he met Michael Faraday and Charles Wheatstone. He was dazzled by the extent of the cultural richness of London and the opulence of its museums, a sort of Babylon alongside which Berlin seemed to him no more than a village. He was in admiration before Westminster Abbey: “Therein professors of physics and chemistry lie next to kings.”² These years could have been very happy for the couple, who then had two children, Katherina and Richard, if Olga’s health had not...

  17. 10 For or Against Pythagoras?
    (pp. 153-178)

    Helmholtz’s research on hearing was audacious and of great scientific significance. It still evokes astonishment and respect today because it represents a rare example in the history of science of such ambitious empirical research carried out by a single man in so short a time. In fact, the whole process was conducted rather haughtily. In a letter to his friend du Bois-Reymond in October 1855, when he had left Königsberg for Bonn, where he had been appointed Professor of Anatomy and Physiology, Helmholtz announced for apparently the first time his intention to begin research on audition. He asked his friend...

  18. 11 The Musical Ear
    (pp. 179-200)

    Music is as difficult to define as it is indispensable to man. It is yet another great mystery for the biologist to understand why, from being completely absent in nonhuman primates, it appeared inHomo sapiensunder the influence of evolutionary pressure comparable to that which gave rise to the blossoming of language and consciousness in our remote ancestors. Furthermore, music, as Helmholtz knew and enjoyed it in the1860s, has continued to evolve to the present day, with dismantling of harmonic structures, challenges to melody, and the invention of serial or atonal music and complex or random rhythms. However, one...

  19. Conclusion: The Wisdom of Alexander von Humboldt
    (pp. 201-210)

    During his life, Helmholtz was hard on himself and exigent on others. He never hesitated to face up to polemic with those who did not share his own vision. Yet in the twilight of his life, basking in honors and social success, he could even be nostalgic. One of his last photographs, taken in 1894 shortly before his death, shows him standing giving a lecture, surrounded by figures and formulae on the blackboard, but with a light in his eyes that expressed a certain moral fatigue, if not sadness.

    It is true that the superb new research institute that he...

  20. Postface
    (pp. 211-216)

    The lives of great men of the past often seem like atrompe-l’oeilto those who wish to scrutinize them. Their characters seem fixed for all time; their prestigious works, analyzed once for all, remain in our memory like incunabula that we respect but do not open anymore, but they take on another aspect as soon as we get closer to them and we see them in a different perspective.

    This is what I experienced during the writing of this book. At first my characters were like statues, but then they came to life and gradually changed, sometimes in unexpected...

  21. Notes
    (pp. 217-226)
  22. Bibliography
    (pp. 227-236)