Charles S. Peirce (1894)

The images of the left column correspond to the five pages of MS 1395, a draft of Helmholtz's obituary prepared by Peirce. The text at the right correspond to the version published in The Nation (59, 13 September 1894, 191-193 [CN 2.69-73]) which does not fit exactly with the draft.

Dr. Hermann Helmholtz, as his contemporaries have called him, the acknowledged and worshipped head of the scientific guild, is gone. He was born on August 31, 1821, at Potsdam, where his father was professor of the gymnasium. His mother's maiden name was Caroline Penn; she came of a branch of that family settled in Germany since the religious troubles in England. From childhood Hermann had a passion for science; but the nineteenth century came near missing this great light, for the circumstances of the family were such that no road to science was open to him except that of studying medicine in the Military Institute of Berlin. He took his degree of M.D. in 1842, and his inaugural dissertation, the only Latin publication of his life, related to the nervous systems of invertebrate animals. He was at once attached to the service of charity, and began without delay to study putrefaction, upon which in 1843 he published a memoir maintaining its purely chemical nature--an opinion subsequently surrendered. He soon returned to Potsdam a surgeon in the army. In 1845 he was employed with good reason to write articles on animal heat in a medical encyclopædia of high character, and in the yearly report upon the progress of physics. The same year he printed an original investigation of the waste of substance of a muscle in action.

After that, for about two years, he produced nothing. It was one of those periods of seeming idleness to which the most productive geniuses are subject, and which afford mediocrity matter for carping. Other young scientists filled the journals of 1846 with the records of their industry, but not one syllable came from Helmholtz. He was not heard from until 1847, and not till July 23, when he read a paper before the Physical Society of Berlin. This paper was entitled "The Conservation of Force." In the judgment of many of those who have examined the matter, it was the epoch-making work from which alone the greatest scientific discovery that man has ever made must date. Certainly it was the argument which produced the intense conviction with which the world has held that doctrine ever since. It is fair to say that other excellent critics, and Helmholtz himself among them, award the merit of the first enunciation of the great law to Robert Mayer, who, in 1842, had published a paper which attracted no attention whatever, and of which Helmholtz in 1847 was as little aware as the rest of the world. But, in any case, there is no doubt that Helmholtz was the first to conceive the proposition from the point of view which made it so attractive to all accurate thinkers and so wonderfully fecund in new truth.

According to his statement, nothing exists in the outer world but matter. Matter in itself (an sich) is capable of no alteration but motion in space, and these motions are modified only by fixed attractions and repulsions, and this is true everywhere, even in the actions of animals and men. It was an amazingly bold assertion, utterly opposed to almost every kind of philosophy, certainly to Kantian and all post Kantian idealism, as well as to the nominalistic idealism of the English school, which such writers as Ernst Mach have taken up. But the implicit faith with which it has been received is a singular psychological phenomenon, for the theory that all human actions are subjected to a law having no teleological character, when we know (or seem to know) that our actions are adjusted to purposes, has obvious difficulties; and the experimental evidence of the correctness of the law as applied to animal physiology is very slender. Indeed, some of the most careful researches (as those of Fick and Wislicenus) have led to results directly opposed to it. Yet the physiologists, one and all--the judicious Michael Foster, for example--simply treat those results as absurd. In this aspect Helmholtz's great doctrine appears as the pet petitio principii of our time. Its truth was unquestionable, in the only sense in which anything based on induction can rationally be admitted as true, namely, its close approximation to exactitude. Nobody can deny that it is at once the crown and the key of physical science. In that memoir, by the way, Helmholtz first displayed his facility in applying the calculus to unaccustomed problems--a facility very surprising in a man of twenty-six whose studies had been supposed to lie in the direction of anatomy and physiology. Surely, in the company at that memorable meeting of the Physical Society there must have been some who were able to discern that they were in the presence of one of the most stupendous intellects that the human race had yet produced.


Of course, a reward was due from organized humanity to the man who had thus lifted man's mind to a higher vantage ground. And this reward came, for the next year he was created no less than assistant in the Anatomical Museum of Berlin. He now began to occupy himself with the physiology of hearing. In 1849 he was appointed supplementary (or extraordinary) professor of physiology in the University of Königsberg (without salary), and in 1850, on July 19, he communicated to the Physical Society of Berlin an elaborate memoir breaking ground in the interesting field of the measurement of the duration of nerve-actions. In 1851 he invented the ophthalmoscope, for which many and many a human being has owed him his eyesight. This year he began an original study of electrodynamics. In 1852 he was promoted to a regular chair in the university. His discourse upon his installation dealt with peripheral sensations in general, especially those of sight and hearing. It was a comparison of the relation existing between the vibrations that excite a given sense, and those existing between the sensations themselves. We remark that while the memoir on the Conservation of Force fairly bristled with repetitions of the philosophical phrase an sich, "in itself," it is in this discourse carefully avoided. It would seem that something must have happened in the interval which made Helmholtz dread "an sich" as a burnt child does fire. In this paper, such ingenuity is used to avoid it that but once does it slip in, and then in a negative phrase. But since the idea was there, we cannot praise Helmholtz for not giving it its proper dress.


In giving the substance of his lecture, we need not imitate his circumlocutions to avoid this natural phrase. His point was this: vibration-systems essentially different give rise to precisely the same color-sensations. There are three fundamental color-sensations, which, being mingled in different amounts, give rise to all others; but there is nothing corresponding to this tri-dimensionality in the vibrations themselves. On the contrary, the sensations of a color-blind person for whom one of the three fundamental sensations is non-existent, much better correspond with the facts in themselves. Sounds, on the whole, correspond more accurately to the vibrations. But, to the ear, the difference between one rate of vibration and another is hardly perceptible until two different sounds are compared. If a melody is transposed to another key, the effect is nearly the same; but a painter who should transpose red to yellow, yellow to green, green to blue, and blue to violet, would make a nightmare of his painting. These are certainly striking facts; but still more interesting is it to note what lesson it was that his typical nineteenth-century understanding drew from them. Other minds as clear as his might have read here the incommensurability between mind and matter, and have found a refutation of materialism in the circumstance that mind here acts as matter could not do. But the conclusion of Helmholtz is that the sense-qualities distinguish the things in themselves about as well and about as arbitrarily as the names Henry, Charles, and John parcel out human kind.



Besides this "Habilitationsvortrag," a "Habilitationsschrift" was expected from the new professor, and this last set forth his theory of the mixture of colors. It was, at bottom, the doctrine of Dr. Thomas Young; and only the careful comparison with observation, and the application of it to explain effects of mixing pigments and the like, were new. In 1854 he attended the meeting of the British Association at Hull, and there read a fuller account of his theory of colors, which no doubt induced Maxwell to take up this study, who soon made it even more lucid and beautiful than Helmholtz had done. In 1855 he became professor of physiology at Bonn. In 1856 he began the publication of his great treatise on physiological optics, which was not completed till ten years later. On May 22 of the same year, he announced to the Berlin Academy his discovery of combinational tones, which are musical sounds resulting from the interferences of the vibrations making two other sounds.



In 1858 he became professor in Heidelberg, at that time the ultimate goal of a German professor's ambition; and in the same year he astonished the mathematical world by his great memoir on eddies, or vortices, a matter of fundamental importance in hydrodynamics. It was a very great and fruitful idea which he there advanced, and which he wonderfully developed. Much has already come from it, but its full harvest yet remains to be gathered in. No mathematician will dispute that this was a work only second in importance to the cataclysmic essay on the Conservation of Force. During the next two years Helmholtz's acoustical researches were very prolific, and at the same time he published remarkable papers upon colorblindness and upon the contrasts of colors. In 1860, on April 12, he read to the Vienna Academy a paper giving measurements by his pupil, Von Pietrowski, of the viscosity of fluids, with a mathematical discussion by himself. Although the subject was not quite new, Stokes's masterly work dating from 1851, still Maxwell's researches were not yet begun, and this memoir constituted another important contribution to hydrodynamics and to the general conception of matter. Helmholtz himself very soon began to apply these ideas in acoustics.



We next find him engaged upon the difficult problem of the horopter and the motions of the eye. One of the next subjects to engage his attention was the musical note which is emitted from a strongly contracted muscle. In 1862 appeared his great work on Sensations of Sound and the theory of music, and with it the main work of his life was accomplished. Since that time he has indeed produced enough to make another man famous; it is little only in comparison with his earlier achievements. He has written, for example, papers upon the facts underlying geometry which were substantially anticipated by Riemann's great work, with which Helmholtz would seem not to have been acquainted. To produce independently that which was the proudest laurel of one of the most original mathematicians of the ages was a great feat, but it was needless. There were also a series of memoirs in which Helmholtz discusses all the principal systems of formulæ which have been proposed by different physicists as laws of electrodynamics. He gave the first mathematical explanation of the formation of ordinary waves upon water--an explanation which not only enables us to see why certain forms of waves which might exist are not produced in nature, but also throws much light on other subjects. In 1871, he was appointed professor of physics, no longer of physiology, in the University of Berlin. Twenty years later he was made president and director of the Physikalisch-Technische Reichsanstalt, a foundation under the control of the Imperial Department of the Interior, for the experimental furthering of exact natural inquiry and the technics of precision.



Not the slightest allusion to any moral or religious problem ever dropped from the pen of Helmholtz. Though no reference to Hegel or Hegelianism appears in his pages, he more than any other namable person caused the downfall of that kind of speculation in Germany, and brought in the present admiration for the English style of philosophizing which his own so much resembled. The temper of the man was admirable. He never indulged in one of those reclamations of priority into which scientific vanity is sure to be betrayed, but several times published notes to show that his own results were not so new as he and the scientific world had believed them to be. He did much to bring into notice the works of other physicists, among them the Americans Rowland and Rood (his visit last year to this country is freshly remembered). He found himself several times engaged in controversies with redoubtable antagonists, Clausius, Bertrand, perhaps we may so reckon Land. In every case he so conducted himself as to bespeak an imperious desire to find out the truth and to publish it; and every approach to personality was avoided or flung away from him as a pestilential infection. The world owes much to the intellectual clearness and integrity of Hermann Helmholtz, M.D.


Proyecto de investigación "La correspondencia europea de C. S. Peirce: creatividad y cooperación científica (Universidad de Navarra 2007-09)

Fecha del documento: 3 de diciembre 2008
Última actualización: 2 de marzo 2009
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