A Theorist of (Not Quite) Everything

Hermann von Helmholtz with several of his inventions, painting by Ludwig Knaus, 1881
Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin
Hermann von Helmholtz with several of his inventions, including a Helmholtz resonator, an ophthalmometer, and an ophthalmoscope; painting by Ludwig Knaus, 1881

In academic scientific biography, it’s the biggest names that justify the biggest books. It helps if the subject is reckoned to have “made the modern world.” Darwin’s modernity-making idea was evolution by natural selection, and Janet Browne’s magnificent two-volume biography accordingly weighed in at 1,200 pages. Newton’s world-changing discoveries included calculus, the laws of motion, the inverse-square law of gravitational attraction, and the compound nature of white light, which Richard Westfall treated (along with much else) in 908 pages. Albrecht Fölsing did Einstein (special and general relativity) in 928 pages. But academic gigantism has now become epidemic, lowering the reputational bar for the biographical door-stopper. Daniel Todes took 860 pages to write his outstanding life of the Russian psychologist Ivan Pavlov (who originated only the psychology of classical conditioning).

David Cahan’s new biography of the German physiologist and physicist Hermann von Helmholtz (1821–1894), thirty years in the making, is enormous: 937 pages, including 168 of notes, index, and bibliography. Cahan advertises his account as “comprehensive,” and it doesn’t leave much out. The biographer tells us that in 1853, before visiting Britain for the first time, Helmholtz ordered a black top-coat and a white vest from his Berlin tailor: “Both turned out very well.” On arrival, he found Scottish accents easier to understand than English ones. He once sat at the wrong place at a dinner table and was obliged to cut slices of ham for everyone else. Disembarking in New York in 1893, Helmholtz viewed the city from the fifteenth floor of the Lloyd newspaper building; the train ride to Chicago took nineteen hours, and the trip from Chicago to Denver, where he stayed in a “luxury eight-story hotel,” took thirty.

This sort of stuff might be pertinent if the subject’s personality and manner of life were in any way remarkable, but in this case they were not: Helmholtz was thoroughly bürgerlich—a nonsmoking, practically nondrinking, broadly liberal but mainly apolitical family man, an uncharismatic lecturer, not well endowed with the eccentricities that biographers often use to illustrate what’s commonly called the “human side” of a scientific life. But a biography of Helmholtz has to overcome a problem not attached to books about Newton, Darwin, or Einstein. Helmholtz isn’t widely recognized as a maker of the modern world, nor is there a single major scientific breakthrough that can be attributed to him alone. His name isn’t well known among a general readership, even in Germany (where there are research centers and streets named after him), though he was hugely respected by many of his contemporaries and followers, including the young Einstein. To his admiring biographer, Helmholtz was, “by any measure, an intellectually…

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