Hermann von Helmholtz: biography of this German physician and physicist

Hermann von Helmholtz is one of the most important researchers in the history of modern science. Renowned in his native Germany and famous the world over, this scientist has contributed immensely to all kinds of fields of knowledge.

Physiology, mechanics, chemistry, physics and even psychology are disciplines to which von Helmholtz contributed in one way or another. In fact, it was thanks to the tutoring and inspiration of Wilhelm Wundt that the first laboratory of empirical psychology was able to come into being.

Then we will discover the life of this researcher through a biography of Hermann von Helmholtz, To whom he influenced, his contributions and major works and the honors he received.

    Brief biography of Hermann von Helmholtz

    Hermann von Helmholtz was a historical figure of the nineteenth century and, like the vast majority of thinkers of his time, devoted himself not to one profession, but to several. He was a German physician and physicist, but with his contributions he can also be considered a physicist, chemist, neurologist, perceptual psychologist and philosopher.All those professions which, at first glance, do not seem to do much harm, but which, of course, had an important scientific basis thanks to the genius and the work of this German.

    In physiology and psychology, he is known for his work on the functioning and perception of the human eye and ear. He contributed in physics with his theory of conservation of energy, his work on electrodynamics, chemical thermodynamics and the mechanical foundations of thermodynamics. As for his contribution to philosophy, his way of defending a more empirical and materialist thought is well known. He was also the inventor of devices such as the ophthalmoscope, ophthalmometer and various devices with which he analyzed sounds.

    first years

    Hermann Ludwig Ferdinand von Helmholtz was born in Potsdam, Prussia (now Germany) on August 31, 1821.. He was the oldest of four siblings, but due to his delicate health, he remained housebound until the age of seven. His father, Ferdinand Helmholtz was a professor of philosophy at the Potsdam Gymnasium and a close friend of Johann Gottlieb Fichte, while his mother was a descendant of William Penn, the founder of the state of Pennsylvania.

    It is said that he inherited the calm and perseverance of his mother, qualities that accompanied him throughout his life as a scientist, while from his father he received an important cultural heritage, therefore a man who l ‘trained in classical languages, French, English and Italian. , as well as the initiation into the philosophy of Emmanuel Kant and Fichte.

    Training as a doctor

    His father would motivate him to study medicine, which he started as soon as he finished high school.. He would do so at the Berlin Medical School (Frédéric Guillem Medico-Surgical Institute) popularly nicknamed the Berlin Nursery. The reason he ended up here was that he didn’t have to pay school fees, which was important as his family wasn’t very wealthy. In order to be able to study here, the young Helmholtz undertook to serve eight years in the army. There he chose to train in physiology, being a pupil of Johannes Peter Müller.

    Four years later, the young Helmholtz left the nursery as a doctor in anatomy to do internships at the Charité in Berlin. In 1841 he began his doctoral thesis under the supervision of Müller, which was a study of the structure of the nervous system in invertebrates.. During the development of this thesis, he discovered that nerve fibers come from cells already identified by Christian Gottfried Ehrenberg.

      Military medicine and physiological research

      In 1843 he was sent to his native hospital in Potsdam where he worked until 1848 as a military doctor. Besides working as a doctor, he was able to conduct research on his own as he had a lot of free time. In fact, he was able to order a cabin to turn it into his laboratory. This modest place would be the scene of several investigations, among which those which carried out on the production of heat during the muscular contraction.

      His research showed that heat was not carried by the blood or nerves, but was produced by the muscles themselves.. He thus deduced from it a mechanical equivalent of heat, finding the exact formulation of the principle of conservation of energy, incorporating it in his thesis of 1847 “Über die Erhaltung der Kraft” (On the conservation of energy).

      With this work he suggested that there were no “vital forces” that moved muscles and rejected the speculative tradition of natural philosophy, the majority common in German physiology at the time. Through this work, Helmholtz is considered one of the great founders of the principle of conservation of energy, One of the most eminent physicists of the 19th century, including Julius von Mayer, James Prescott Joule and William Thomsom, Lord Kelvin.

      Years of teaching and end of life

      After all this, he was able to leave the army and start teaching anatomy at the Prussian Academy of Arts, in part thanks to the help provided by Alexander von Humboldt. He would later obtain a place in the chair of physiology in Königsberg (1849) then in Bonn (1955) and Heidelberg.

      In 1871 he was appointed president of physics and director of the Institute of the University of Berlin, and in 1888 he assumed the presidency of the Physico-Technical Institute in Charlottenburg. At that time, he would study wave phenomena, the laws of the vertiginous motion of fluids, and research into the wave motion of fluids.. A few years later, he died, precisely on September 8, 1894, at the age of 73.

      During his last years of life he passed through his classes of great scientists and minds of the nineteenth century intellectual panorama, including Max Planck, Heinrich Kayser, Wilhelm Wien, Eugen Goldstein, Arthut König, Wilheml Wundt, Henry Augustus Rowland, Albert A. Michelson, Fernando Sanford and Michael I. Pupin.

      Theoretical and practical works and contributions

      His first major research work was his doctoral thesis “Über die Erhaltung der Kraft” (1847) in which he exposes the exact formulation of the principle of conservation of energy, Which had already been discovered by Julius von Mayer but presented with little scientific rigor. This document, read before the Berlin Physical Society, made Helmholtz one of the greatest physicists of the time. Moreover, he himself had the merit of extending this principle also to electrical and magnetic phenomena.

      Later that would be when he devoted himself to physiology. He studied some physico-physiological points and established a theory of sensations. His “Handbook of Physiological Optics”, his “Investigations on Sound Sensations” and “Physiological Theory of Music”, all the research and treatises published during the period 1863 and 1867, achieved notable notoriety.

      His studies of sensory physiology would be the basis of the work of Wilhelm Wundt, Being a pupil of Helmholtz himself and who would eventually found the first laboratory of experimental psychology. In fact, Wundt describes Helmholtz’s method as that of a kind of empirical philosophy in which the mind was studied as an independent element. Helmholtz had rejected natural philosophy and emphasized the importance of materialism.

      In 1849, being in the routine, Helmholtz measured the speed of transmission of nerve impulses. At that time, it was already suspected that nerve signals were traveling along the nerves at an enormous speed, but it was not known to what extent. To be able to check, he used a frog’s sciatic nerve and the muscle in one of his hips. Using a galvanometer and a method in which he incorporated the use of a mirror to reflect light into the room so that the device could detect it, he was able to verify the speed of the pulse: 24.6-38.4 meters per second.

        physiological studies

        The manual of physiological optics “was published in three parts in 1856, 1860 and 1866. It includes many researches carried out by the author which have been important contributions to contemporary knowledge on the eye, psychological optics., La ocular diopter and visual sensations and perceptions, belonging to the field of psychology and why Helmholtz is highly regarded in the behavioral and perceptual sciences. It is also in his textbook that he describes the ophthalmometer and the ophthalmoscope, two instruments that he himself made.

        The treatise “Investigations on sound sensations” of 1863 was the founding document in the history of acoustics as a science.. In it, the author wondered what the essence of sound sensation was and found out that it is due to periodic movements of air. He also studied what differentiated musical sounds from each other and established the existence of three characteristics: intensity, pitch and timbre.

        Regarding timbre, Herlmholtz admits that this is due to the existence of “upper partial tones”, a phenomenon we know today as harmonics and which overlap with the fundamental tones. The number and intensity of harmonics are what characterize the timbre of a sound. To study vowel timbre, construct resonators made of hollow spheres of different diameters, each of which entered a different resonant vibration when a sound of a period equal to its own was produced nearby.

        In this work too he talked about beatings, which he studied experimentally using a self-made polyphonic siren and he established that when the number of strokes per two single tones was less than a certain number, dissonance was obtained, as a rule. Through this research, Herlmholtz came to an explanation of harmony whereby the most pleasurable effects in music were provided by the simplest relationships between vibrations, an explanation which answered one of the most discussed questions for decades. time immemorial on Pythagoras.

        In his “Physiological Theory of Music” (1863), he exposes a whole homogeneous and well-ordered body on the notions and facts discovered by illustrious musicians, physicists and physiologists on the art of muses, by modifying them and explaining them. mechanical terms. The main theme of this work is that of resonance in physical and physiological terms.

        Mechanical studies and other works

        In the more purely physical field, he was concerned with wave phenomena, and by 1858 he had already come to formulate mathematically the laws of the vertiginous motion of fluids, thus beginning a new chapter in mechanics.

        In analytical mechanics, he applied to electrodynamics the principle of minimal action which would later lead him to the formulation of a new theory of electromagnetism, more complete than that proposed by James Maxwell. In 1881, studying the electrolytic effects of current, it became intuitive to a concept as modern as that of quanta.. The principle of conservation of energy would be applied to chemical processes, advancing physical chemistry and thermodynamics.

        In addition to the works we have discussed, mention should be made of the “Lectures on Popular Science” (1865-1870), “Counting and Measuring” (1887) and the “Collections of Scientific Dissertations” (1882-1895). His academic lectures in physics appeared posthumously in five volumes between 1897 and 1898 under the title “Lectures in Theoretical Physics”.

        Helmholtz’s Honors and Legacy

        So important was Helmholtz’s work and contributions that both in life and posthumously he received numerous international honors. In 1881 he was elected an honorary member of the Royal College of Surgeons of Ireland and in the same year he was awarded the French Legion of Honor. In 1884 he was awarded the title of Honorary Fellow of the Institution of Engineers and Shipbuilders of Scotland.

        In 1883 he was honored by the Emperor of Prussia by giving him a title of nobility, stylizing his surname with the “von” before which, although this did not imply gaining land, meant receiving a title of respect within German society and it was hereditary in nature, giving it a social haunt. However, the greatest honor to his scientific work is undoubtedly having been baptized after his name. the largest association of scientific institutions in Germany: the Helmholtz Association.

        Bibliographical references:

        • Cahan, D. (1993). Hermann Von Helmholtz and the Foundations of 19th Century Science. University of California Press. p. 198. ISBN 978-0-520-08334-9.
        • Patton, L., (2009), Signs, Toy Models, and the A Priori: from Helmholtz to Wittgenstein, Studies in the History and Philosophy of Science, 40 (3): 281-289.
        • Turner, RS (2014) In the Eye’s Mind: Vision and the Helmholtz-Hering Controversy, Princeton University Press, p. 36.

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