Hermann Helmholtz from A to Z
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After being ennobled in 1883, Hermann Helmholtz became Hermann von Helmholtz. Whether with or without the “von”, he was and still is recognized as a giant of nineteenth-century physiology and physics and an iconic figure in German science and culture generally. And yet, despite his elevated status in the history of science, until the 1980s relatively little scholarly work was devoted to Helmholtz, his work and his influence. The somewhat hagiographic standard biography by the mathematician Leo Koenigsberger was published nearly 120 years ago and is long outdated. Of course, the subject of David Cahan’s biography is the same as Koenigsberger’s, but this is about the only similarity.
Cahan’s comprehensive study of Helmholtz is critical and balanced, and it deals in fascinating details with just about every aspect related to Helmholtz’s life and work, scientific as well as nonscientific. Insofar as the book has a focus, it is on Helmholtz as a representative of German culture during a...