AHP readers may be interested in M. Norton Wise’s recent book, Aesthetics, Industry, and Science: Hermann Von Helmholtz and the Berlin Physical Society. The book is described as follows:
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On January 5, 1845, the Prussian Cultural Minister received a request by a group of six young men to form a new Physical Society in Berlin. In fields from thermodynamics, mechanics, and electromagnetism to animal electricity, ophthalmology, and psychophysics, members of this small but growing group—which soon included Emil Du Bois-Reymond, Ernst Brücke, Werner Siemens, and Hermann von Helmholtz—established leading positions in what only thirty years later had become a new landscape of natural science. How was this possible? How could a bunch of twenty-somethings succeed in seizing the future?
In Aesthetics, Industry, and Science M. Norton Wise answers these questions not simply from a technical perspective of theories and practices but with a broader cultural view of what was happening in Berlin at the time. He emphasizes in particular how rapid industrial development, military modernization, and the neoclassical aesthetics of contemporary art informed the ways in which these young men thought. Wise argues that aesthetic sensibility and material aspiration in this period were intimately linked, and he uses these two themes for a final reappraisal of Helmholtz’s early work. Anyone interested in modern German cultural history, or the history of nineteenth-century German science, will be drawn to this landmark book.
The most recent issue of Annals of Science includes an article that may be of interest to AHP reads. In “Vital Instability: Life and Free Will in Physics and Physiology, 1860–1880” Marij van Strien (left) describes efforts by nineteenth century scholars to use physics based theories to account for how the mind can influence the body. The abstract reads,
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During the period 1860–1880, a number of physicists and mathematicians, including Maxwell, Stewart, Cournot and Boussinesq, used theories formulated in terms of physics to argue that the mind, the soul or a vital principle could have an impact on the body. This paper shows that what was primarily at stake for these authors was a concern about the irreducibility of life and the mind to physics, and that their theories can be regarded primarily as reactions to the law of conservation of energy, which was used among others by Helmholtz and Du Bois-Reymond as an argument against the possibility of vital and mental causes in physiology. In light of this development, Maxwell, Stewart, Cournot and Boussinesq showed that it was still possible to argue for the irreducibility of life and the mind to physics, through an appeal to instability or indeterminism in physics: if the body is an unstable or physically indeterministic system, an immaterial principle can act through triggering or directing motions in the body, without violating the laws of physics.
New Books in Science, Technology, and Society, part of the New Books Network, has released an audio interview with historian Gabriel Finkelstein on his recent book Emil du Bois-Reymond: Neuroscience, Self, and Society in Nineteenth-Century Germany. As described on the New Books in STS website,
Finkelstein considers how someone so famous and so important could end up so forgotten, and he does a masterful job in rectifying that situation. The book traces du Bois-Reymond’s life and work, from a childhood in Berlin, to an early life and schooling in Bonn, and then back to Berlin and beyond in the course of a mature career in laboratories and lecture halls. We meet the scientist as teacher, as writer, and as public and university intellectual, and follow his transformation from Romantic to Lucretian and his dual existence as simultaneously staunch individual and product of his class and culture. The chapters are beautifully written, and range from exploring diary pages and love letters to laboratory equipment, with stopovers to consider frog pistols and hopping dances of joy along the way. Whether du Bois-Reymond was accepting the advice of his friends (as offered above) or avoiding his underwear-proffering mother-in-law (of which you’ll hear more in the conversation), he emerges here as not just an important historical figure, but also a fascinating person who’s a joy to read about.
The full interview can be found online here.
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Gabriel Finkelstein, Associate Professor of History at the University of Colorado Denver, has just published a volume on the life and work of nineteenth century physiologist Emil du Bois-Reymond. An important figure in uncovering the electrical nature of nerve activity, du Bois-Reymond is positioned by Finkelstein as central to the development of modern neuroscience. Emil du Bois-Remond: Neuroscience, Self, and Society in Nineteenth-Century Germany is described on the publisher’s website as follows,
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Emil du Bois-Reymond is the most important forgotten intellectual of the nineteenth century. In his own time (1818–1896) du Bois-Reymond grew famous in his native Germany and beyond for his groundbreaking research in neuroscience and his provocative addresses on politics and culture. This biography by Gabriel Finkelstein draws on personal papers, published writings, and contemporary responses to tell the story of a major scientific figure. Du Bois-Reymond’s discovery of the electrical transmission of nerve signals, his innovations in laboratory instrumentation, and his reductionist methodology all helped lay the foundations of modern neuroscience.
In addition to describing the pioneering experiments that earned du Bois-Reymond a seat in the Prussian Academy of Sciences and a professorship at the University of Berlin, Finkelstein recounts du Bois-Reymond’s family origins, private life, public service, and lasting influence. Du Bois-Reymond’s public lectures made him a celebrity. In talks that touched on science, philosophy, history, and literature, he introduced Darwin to German students (triggering two days of debate in the Prussian parliament); asked, on the eve of the Franco-Prussian War, whether France had forfeited its right to exist; and proclaimed the mystery of consciousness, heralding the age of doubt. The first modern biography of du Bois-Reymond in any language, this book recovers an important chapter in the history of science, the history of ideas, and the history of Germany.