It should be known, first off, that this is a monograph loosely oriented around Helmholtz more than it is an outright biography. There are fragments that are beautiful piece of portraiture of Helmholtz’ life, but roughly two-thirds of the work is about something other than his life, though closely related. Some of these elements, peripheral to Helmholtz’ life that are included, are his works in physiology, the context of is his bildungsroman (e.g., Müller’s lab), and Goethe, as Goethe relates to the drama of the debate about the nature of vision and audition. Also, the book is only tenuously about “neuroscience” in the subtitle, “From Enlightenment to Neuroscience.” It would have been better to use the word “toward,” instead of “to,” because I don’t believe Helmholtz’ really did much for that discipline, properly speaking; but he did lay quite a bit of foundational work, in the same way that Kant is considered a conceptual predecessor of the discipline. (See also Margaret Boden’s “Mind as Machine: A History of Cognitive Science,” which makes this clear, as well.) Most appropriately, the ostensible biography is a story about Helmholtz’ physiological work on the physiology of sight and hearing, and, in a qualified sense, the physics associated with these, as well.
Accordingly, I, unfortunately, cannot recommend this book to the general lay audience, especially if in want of a straight biography (for which I recommend Cahan’s biography). I imagine the average reader, when confronted with the high-quality historical work, entailing technical detail of nineteenth-century physiological instruments etc., will have a difficult time making it through. For students of history of science and philosophy of science, I could not recommend the book more, especially those students with technical knowledge of some science, accustomed to wading through technical work. I should say, for the intellectual reader, who is neither a student or academician, this monograph has at least one hundred and thirty-some odd pages (i.e., the first chunk of the 220-page book) that do not contain technical detail, but are wonderful explications of the debate on colors between Newton and Goethe, and Helmholtz’ role in resolving the matter. It also has a bit of expository work on Kant’s influence upon Helmholtz.
My general opinion of the book, as the four stars denote, is very favorable. The writing is well done, possibly thanks to the translator, Laurence Garey. The illustrations are extraordinarily well placed, almost as if the author knew that the text necessitated them in that place; and so, the book is very pleasing to the eye and sustains a high level of intelligibility, due to the good sense and judgment of placing illustrations, which, themselves, are good facsimiles. The problem with the book is that it has the feeling of being a dissertation. As is often the case with dissertations, the chapters seem like they are self-contained bits of research; I could not tell, based on the early goings of the monograph, where the narrative’s trajectory was taking me. It was only through extensive reflection that I could get hold of the rationale for the construction, giving it my most sympathetic effort.
Overall, the book is very readable, is enjoyable in many parts, a little uninteresting in a few other parts, and may not be productive to all of the general readership. I do recommend the book to all looking to research Helmholtz (partly because Meulders uses a wealth of French scholarship, otherwise not seen as much in the literature on Helmholtz, in my experience), and who has already read Cahan’s biography. I also recommend, for those interested more in history and philosophy of physics than physiology, Gregor Schiemann’s “Hermann von Helmholtz's Mechanism.”