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Helmholtz [Hardcover]

Michel Meulders , Laurence Garey

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Book Description

2 Nov 2010
Although Hermann von Helmholtz was one of most remarkable figures of nineteenth-century science, he is little known outside his native Germany. Helmholtz (1821--1894) made significant contributions to the study of vision and perception and was also influential in the painting, music, and literature of the time; one of his major works analyzed tone in music. This book, the first in English to describe Helmholtz's life and work in detail, describes his scientific studies, analyzes them in the context of the science and philosophy of the period -- in particular the German Naturphilosophie -- and gauges his influence on today's neuroscience. Helmholtz, trained by Johannes Mller, one of the best physiologists of his time, used a resolutely materialistic and empirical scientific method in his research. His work, eclipsed at the beginning of the twentieth century by new ideas in neurophysiology, has recently been rediscovered. We can now recognize in Helmholtz's methods -- which were based on his belief in the interconnectedness of physiology and psychology -- the origins of neuroscience.

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"Hermann von Helmholtz was a towering figure in nineteenth-century physiology, psychology, physics, and philosophy, and the founder of the modern study of vision and audition. Michel Meulders' superb scientific biography situates Helmholtz in the science and philosophy of his time and demonstrates why he is still a living force today." Charles Gross, Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience, Princeton University "This fascinating book exquisitely recreates the long forgotten history of Helmholtz's prodigious insights and methodologies that now constitute basic core components in modern neuroscience. Going beyond the physics, engineering, and natural sciences of the time, Helmholtz's strict mathematical reductionism served as the intellectual backdrop for much of his biological insights into nerve conduction, muscle contraction, vision, hearing, and even music. This is a wonderful book offering rare insights into the history of our field." Rodolfo R. Llinas, Professor and Chairman, Department of Physiology and Neuroscience, New York University Medical School

About the Author

Michel Meulders is Emeritus Professor of Neuroscience and Honorary Prorector of the Catholic University of Louvain, where he also was Dean of the Medical School from 1974 to 1979. Laurence Garey, a neuroscientist and anatomist, is the translator of Michel Jouvet's The Paradox of Sleep (2001) and The Castle of Dreams (2008), both published by the MIT Press.

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Customer Reviews

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Amazon.com: 3.3 out of 5 stars  3 reviews
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Waste of Time 29 Dec 2010
By Ronsen - Published on Amazon.com
The book is a packaging success but a dud of a read. I found it superficial, confused and incomplete in its treatment of each aspect of Helmholtz's life and work. Here and there, paragraphs seem to lead somewhere but then the promise peters out. The translation (too often offering only awkward, word-for-word Germanisms instead of real translations of thought) is quite uneven. The original book seems to have been an encyclopedic collection of essays related to Helmholtz's life and work but without any unifying insights. The book is fundamentally disorganized and incoherent, as if written over a 20 year period during which the author never uncovered anything really worth writing more about. Beside just getting it into print -- as if the publisher were doing the author a favor -- I cannot imagine any reason for publishing this book. It surely does not add anything to a lay reader's understanding of Helmholtz's contributions to science or philosophy. It is not worth the time to read.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent introduction to non-specialists 28 July 2013
By altbauten - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
This was the first book on Helmholtz I had the pleasure to read, and it was a fabulous introduction to the man's astounding body of work; much attention was given to the cultural and historical context in which said work blossomed, and biographical details enlivened some of the more technical passages to the point where I, pretty much a layperson, could read about physics and physiology with a great deal of pleasure -- regrettably, a first for me. While I am certain nothing beats reading the thousands upon thousands of pages of Helmholtz' actual textual production (I am halfway through On the Sensations of Tone as a Physiological Basis for the Theory of Music, and can hardly believe it is essentially the work of one man), it would've been too daunting a task to even contemplate before sitting down with Professor Meulders' very concise book. Strongly recommended to those who, such as myself, want to ease into the study of the physiology of perception without being immediately overwhelmed by its more technical aspects, as well as to those with even a passing interest in the history of science.
4.0 out of 5 stars Enjoyable Read But Not for All 26 Jan 2014
By David Milliern - Published on Amazon.com
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.”
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