Sci­en­tific won­der

The life of Her­mann von Helmholtz

THE (Times Higher Education) - - CONTENTS - Richard Joyner is emer­i­tus pro­fes­sor of chem­istry at Not­ting­ham Trent Uni­ver­sity.

Helmholtz: A Life in Sci­ence By David Ca­han Uni­ver­sity of Chicago Press 944pp, £41.00

ISBN 9780226481142 Pub­lished 23 Oc­to­ber 2018

Uni­ver­sity of Ne­braskaLin­coln his­to­rian David Ca­han’s bi­og­ra­phy of 19th-cen­tury sci­en­tist Her­mann von Helmholtz is mas­sive, weigh­ing in at 1.83kg, or 4lb in old money. Helmholtz’s work def­i­nitely jus­ti­fies a sub­stan­tial study. How­ever, I believe that in­side Ca­han’s book is a shorter, bet­ter vol­ume cry­ing to get out.

Helmholtz was born in Pots­dam in 1821 and trained as a med­i­cal doc­tor in nearby Ber­lin, then the cap­i­tal of Prus­sia. He con­trib­uted ex­ten­sively to an­i­mal and hu­man phys­i­ol­ogy and recog­nised the im­por­tance of con­ser­va­tion of en­ergy, pro­duc­ing an early state­ment of what is now known as the first law of ther­mo­dy­nam­ics. He con­structed the first in­stru­ment suc­cess­fully to al­low ex­am­i­na­tion of the hu­man retina, his oph­thal­mo­scope. He worked on the the­ory and mech­a­nisms of colour vi­sion, on non-Eu­clidean ge­om­e­try, on the phys­i­o­log­i­cal ba­sis of mu­sic, and he wrote in­flu­en­tially on the re­la­tions be­tween sci­ence and phi­los­o­phy, par­tic­u­larly that of Im­manuel Kant. He trans­formed him­self into a the­o­ret­i­cal physi­cist and was re­garded as an equal by Wil­liam Thom­son (Lord Kelvin) and James Clerk Max­well for his work in hy­dro­dy­nam­ics and elec­tro­dy­nam­ics. His Hand­buch der phys­i­ol­o­gis­chen Op­tik, pub­lished in three vol­umes in 1856-66, be­came a stan­dard work and was trans­lated into English and French. He also gave many lec­tures on sci­ence to the gen­eral pub­lic. Helmholtz’s over­all con­tri­bu­tions, both in breadth and depth, have rarely been equalled – he was a sci­en­tific and in­tel­lec­tual su­per­star.

Af­ter Ber­lin, his ca­reer took him to Konigs­berg, which had been the Prus­sian cap­i­tal un­til 1701, where he was ap­pointed ex­tra­or­di­nary (as­so­ciate) pro­fes­sor of phys­i­ol­ogy in 1848. By 1855, he was or­di­nary (full) pro­fes­sor of anatomy and phys­i­ol­ogy in Bonn (Rhine Prov­ince of Prus­sia), mov­ing in 1858 to Hei­del­berg, in the Grand Duchy of Baden. In 1871, he re­turned to Ber­lin, newly cre­ated cap­i­tal of the Ger­man Empire, as pro­fes­sor of physics and in­sti­tute di­rec­tor.

Ca­han’s de­clared in­ten­tion, fol­low­ing a chrono­log­i­cal ap­proach, is to por­tray both Helmholtz’s life and his work, ex­plor­ing th­ese in the wider con­text of 19th-cen­tury sci­ence and cul­ture. With such broad aims, there are in­evitably is­sues of bal­ance.

Helmholtz: A Life in Sci­ence seems to me to ex­em­plify a trend in aca­demic bi­ogra­phies of sci­en­tists, where so­cial his­tory pre­dom­i­nates and the sci­ence of the sub­ject takes sec­ond place. The book is ab­sorb­ing as a de­scrip­tion of 19th-cen­tury Ger­man uni­ver­sity pol­i­tics. Then, as now, states and lo­cal gov­ern­ments were much in­volved in aca­demic ap­point­ments, which could be­come tor­tu­ous to an ex­tent that is un­fa­mil­iar in the UK or the US. Helmholtz seems to have been quite good, pre-uni­fi­ca­tion, at play­ing one gov­ern­ment off against an­other. The Franco-Prus­sian war of 1871 and the sub­se­quent uni­fi­ca­tion of Ger­many were events of ma­jor sig­nif­i­cance to Helmholtz and to all Ger­mans, which the book also treats very well.

We learn a lot about Helmholtz’s life and less about his work. One ex­am­ple will suf­fice. In 1851, aged 30, Helmholtz built the in­stru­ment that made his name. Through his oph­thal­mo­scope, he be­came the first per­son able to see the hu­man retina. The new de­vice started a ben­e­fi­cial revo­lu­tion in the anal­y­sis, di­ag­no­sis and treat­ment of eye dis­ease, yet Ca­han de­scribes its in­ven­tion and con­struc­tion in less than one page and pro­vides no di­a­gram to show how it works. Helmholtz told his fa­ther that he learned the

op­tics nec­es­sary to con­struct the oph­thal­mo­scope at his gym­na­sium (se­condary school), so the prin­ci­ples in­volved can­not be too ab­struse. In­stead of de­tail­ing them, how­ever, Ca­han gives us six pages de­scrib­ing a tour that Helmholtz took to pro­mote the in­stru­ment. ( En pas­sant, you may ask about the Helmholtz coil, an im­por­tant piece of kit used to pro­duce a re­gion of uni­form mag­netic field. This was in­vented by some­one else and named in Helmholtz’s hon­our. It is not men­tioned in this book.)

Ca­han is ex­haus­tive on Helmholtz’s life out­side the lab. We are spared no de­tail of where he went on busi­ness and on hol­i­day. We are told how he trav­elled, what the weather was like (in Eng­land it rained a lot), where he stayed, who he met and, some­times, what they ate. We are even told of some peo­ple he never met (Bismarck). We know who he wrote let­ters to as well as what mu­sic he lis­tened to (Wag­ner) and played (Bach fugues on a Stein­way pi­ano ser­viced per­son­ally by a se­nior mem­ber of the Stein­way fam­ily). Put sim­ply, we are told too much, at a length that be­comes te­dious. We are only rarely given any de­tail of what spe­cific ques­tions he worked on at a par­tic­u­lar time, and we dis­cover noth­ing about how he recorded or or­gan­ised his ex­per­i­men­tal re­sults. I open the bi­og­ra­phy of a sci­en­tist ex­pect­ing that it will tell me what they achieved but also hop­ing that it will of­fer some in­sight into how and why they got there. I learned very lit­tle about the thought pro­cesses or mo­ti­va­tion of this great man.

One thing slightly sur­prised me. Only 30 years af­ter the con­struc­tion of the first steam rail­way, travel across coun­tries and con­ti­nents had be­come part of ev­ery­day life, at least for the well-off. As a re­sult, Helmholtz’s life as a sci­en­tific grandee (Ca­han’s term) had much in com­mon with that of the two or three su­per­stars that I have been priv­i­leged to know in my own ca­reer (none of whom as­pired to grandee sta­tus). He was a worka­holic to the ex­tent that his health suf­fered. He reg­u­larly met and had dis­cus­sions with other su­per­stars, want­ing to know their opin­ions, although th­ese rarely al­tered his own. He cared about who re­ceived hon­ours and awards, gain­ing many him­self. His lab­o­ra­tory be­came a mag­net for good young sci­en­tists, es­pe­cially af­ter his move to Ber­lin. Un­like to­day’s su­per­stars, he was un­able to hand over much of his teach­ing or ad­min­is­tra­tion, and he was in­volved in pri­or­ity dis­putes to an ex­tent that is now un­usual. He net­worked very well with other su­per­stars, but less ef­fec­tively with the other ranks.

The skill that he showed in op­er­at­ing across so many dis­ci­plinary bound­aries would make him a rar­ity to­day.

Some su­per­stars are charis­matic in­di­vid­u­als who give in­spir­ing lec­tures; oth­ers, such as Helmholtz, are not. Max Planck came to study with him in 1877 but stayed only one term. Helmholtz’s lec­tures, he noted, were “never prop­erly pre­pared and he him­self seemed to be at least as bored as we were”. I believe it is rare that a sci­en­tist’s per­son­al­ity of­fers much in­sight into their work. Helmholtz sought to cre­ate over­ar­ch­ing, rev­o­lu­tion­ary sci­en­tific laws, yet in his per­sonal life seems to have been rigidly con­ven­tional. He was strongly An­glophile through­out his life and equally Fran­co­phobe un­til 1871. He re­fused to con­demn the an­ti­semitism that flared up Ber­lin in the 1870s, de­spite the urg­ing of his life­long friend Emil du BoisRey­mond.

Helmholtz is now re­mem­bered by oph­thalmic op­ti­cians and phys- icists as well as through the pres­ti­gious Helmholtz Re­search In­sti­tutes in Ger­many, but his is no longer a house­hold name. He lived at the apogee of what is now la­belled clas­si­cal physics, dy­ing in 1894. Only six years later, Planck pub­lished his rev­o­lu­tion­ary pa­per on black body ra­di­a­tion. That turned phys­i­cal sci­ence up­side down and be­gan the quan­tum era of modern physics. Who can tell whether this ac­ci­dent of tim­ing makes Helmholtz lucky or un­lucky?

He was a worka­holic to the ex­tent that his health suf­fered. He reg­u­larly met with other su­per­stars, want­ing to know their opin­ions, although th­ese rarely al­tered his own

Cu­ri­ous Helmholtz, in ad­di­tion to cre­at­ing the oph­thal­mo­scope (right), con­trib­uted ex­ten­sively to an­i­mal and hu­man phys­i­ol­ogy and recog­nised the im­por­tance of con­ser­va­tion of en­ergy. He be­came pro­fes­sor of physics at Ber­lin af­ter the Franco-Prus­sian war

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