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Hermann Helmholtz - One of the greatest scientists of the XIX century

Hermann Helmholtz
Hermann Ludwig Ferdinand von Helmholtz
(August 31, 1821, Potsdam, Kingdom of Prussia - September 8, 1894, Charlottenburg, Germany)
Nationality: Germany
Category: Scientists
Occupation: Physiologists,
Unique distinction: One of the most prolific and greatest scientists of the XIX century, “Homo Universalis”.
Gender: Male
Quotes: 1. The originator of a new concept...finds, as a rule, that it is much more difficult to find out why other people do not understand him, than it was to discover the new truth. 2. A metaphysical conclusion is either a false conclusion or a concealed experimental conclusion. 3. Whoever, in the pursuit of science, seeks after immediate practical utility, may generally rest assured that he will seek in vain. 4. Music stands in a much closer connection with pure sensation than any of the other arts. 5. The smallest quantity of alcohol scares away novel ideas. 6. Reason we call that faculty innate in us of discovering laws and applying them with thought. 7. There is a kind, I might almost say, of artistic satisfaction, when we are able to survey the enormous wealth of Nature as a regularly ordered whole a kosmos, an image of the logical thought of our own mind. 8. Every great deed of which history tells us, every mighty passion which art can represent, every picture of manners, of civic arrangements, of the culture of peoples of distant lands or of remote times, seizes and interests us, even if there is no exact scientific connection among them.


Social and professional position: German physiologist, psychologist and physicist.
The main contribution to (what is known): Helmholtz made significant contributions to physiology and psychology: theories of vision, ideas on the visual perception of space, color vision research, the sensation of tone, perception of sound; to physics: theories on the conservation of energy, theory of electrodynamics and thermodynamics, the notion of free energy in thermodynamics, and the invention of the ophthalmoscope; philosophy: philosophy of science, ideas on the relation between the laws of perception and the laws of nature.

1. Phisics. Discovered and proved experimentally the law of conservation of energy (1847), and introduced the vortex equations for fluid dynamics and the concept of free energy in thermodynamics.
2. Physiology. Developed theories of vision, Resonance Theory of Hearing, ideas on the visual perception of space, geometry and topological properties of space, color vision research, and on the sensation of tone, perception of sound.
In 1850 he was the first to measure the speed of a nerve impulse (120 m/s) and in 1851 invented the ophthalmoscope.
3. Psychology. Developed the psychology of perception and sensation, “signs or symbols theory”, focusing on the unity of mind and body, revealed a close connection between muscle, sensory and mental factors in the perception and in the construction of the world picture. He was one of the first who put forward the theory of unconscious inferences and identified the stages of creativity.
He is a pioneer in the experimental study of the senses and the use of mathematical methods for data processing.    
4. Philosophy. He is known for his philosophy and epistemology of science, ideas on the relation between the laws of perception and the laws of nature, the science of aesthetics, and ideas on the civilizing power of science.

Honors and Awards: Honorary Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland (1881). Honorary Membership of the Institution of Engineers and Shipbuilders in Scotland (1884). Matteucci Medal (1868), Copley Medal (1873), Albert Medal (1888).
Major works: On the Conservation of Force (1847), Handbook of Physiological Optics Handbuch der physiologischen Optik, Bd. 1–3 (1856, 1862, 1867), The Sensation of Tone as a Physiological Basis for the Theory of Music (Die Lehre von den Tönemfindungen als physiologische Grundlage für die Theorie der Musik ) (1863) Text-books: Vorlesungen über die elektromagnetische Theorie des Licht (1897); Vorlesungen über theoretische Physik, Bd. 1–6, (1897–1907).


Origin: He was the son of the Potsdam Gymnasium headmaster, teacher of philosophy and literature Ferdinand Helmholtz and of his mother, who was descended from William Penn, the founder of Pennsylvania.
Education: He attended Potsdam Gymnasium where his father taught philology and classical literature. His father taught him the classical languages, as well as French, English, and Italian. He graduated from from the gymnasium and in 1838 and entered the Friedrich Wilhelm Medical Institute in Berlin (Medicinisch-chirurgisches Friedrich-Wilhelm-Institut) (1938 -1843).
Influenced by: Johann Gottlieb Fichte, Immanuil Kant and physiologist Johannes Müller.
Career highlights:

Helmhotz served as a surgeon in the military until 1847.
In 1849 he was appointed associate professor of physiology and director of the Physiological Institute at the Prussian University of Königsberg.
In 1855 he accepted a full professorship of anatomy and physiology at the University of Bonn.
In 1958 he transferred to the University of Heidelberg, in Baden, where he served as professor of physiology.
In 1871 he accepted his final university position, as professor of physics at the University of Berlin.  
Great  psychologists Wilhelm Wundt and William James and German physicist Heinrich Rudolf Hertz were his students.

Personal life:

On 26 August 1849 he married Olga von Velten, daughter of a military surgeon.  His father died in 1858, then at the end of 1859 his wife, whose health had never been good, died. He was left to bring up two young children and on 16 May 1861 Helmholtz married Anna von Mohl, the daughter of another professor at Heidelberg. Anna von Mohl was an attractive  woman,  who became mother of their three children.
Helmholtz died  at the aged of 73 on September 8, 1894 in Charlottenburg, German Empire).