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Home > Dictionary of Science Quotations > Scientist Names Index H > Hermann von Helmholtz Quotes

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Hermann von Helmholtz
(31 Aug 1821 - 8 Sep 1894)

German physiologist and physicist.

Science Quotes by Hermann von Helmholtz (22 quotes)

A metaphysical conclusion is either a false conclusion or a concealed experimental conclusion.
— Hermann von Helmholtz
'On Thought in Medicine' (1877). Trans. E. Atkinson, Popular Lectures on Scientific Subjects (1881), 234.
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All that science can achieve is a perfect knowledge and a perfect understanding of the action of natural and moral forces.
— Hermann von Helmholtz
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Apprehension by the senses supplies, directly or indirectly, the material of all human knowledge; or, at least, the stimulus necessary to develop every inborn faculty of the mind.
— Hermann von Helmholtz
In 'The Theory of Vision', collected in Science and Culture: Popular and Philosophical Essays (), 127.
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During the first half of the present century we had an Alexander von Humboldt, who was able to scan the scientific knowledge of his time in its details, and to bring it within one vast generalization. At the present juncture, it is obviously very doubtful whether this task could be accomplished in a similar way, even by a mind with gifts so peculiarly suited for the purpose as Humboldt's was, and if all his time and work were devoted to the purpose.
— Hermann von Helmholtz
In Hermann von Helmholtz and Edmund Atkinson (trans.), 'The Aim and Progress of Physical Science', Popular Scientific Lectures on Scientific Subjects (1873), 363.
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I consider the study of medicine to have been that training which preached more impressively and more convincingly than any other could have done, the everlasting principles of all scientific work; principles which are so simple and yet are ever forgotten again, so clear and yet always hidden by a deceptive veil.
— Hermann von Helmholtz
In Lecture (2 Aug 1877) delivered on the anniversary of the foundation of the Institute for the Education of Army Surgeons, 'On Thought in Medicine', collected in 'Popular Scientific Lectures', The Humboldt Library of Popular Science Literature (1 Jul 1881), 1, No. 24, 18, (renumbered as p.748 in reprint volume of Nos. 1-24).
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I do not intend to go deeply into the question how far mathematical studies, as the representatives of conscious logical reasoning, should take a more important place in school education. But it is, in reality, one of the questions of the day. In proportion as the range of science extends, its system and organization must be improved, and it must inevitably come about that individual students will find themselves compelled to go through a stricter course of training than grammar is in a position to supply. What strikes me in my own experience with students who pass from our classical schools to scientific and medical studies, is first, a certain laxity in the application of strictly universal laws. The grammatical rules, in which they have been exercised, are for the most part followed by long lists of exceptions; accordingly they are not in the habit of relying implicitly on the certainty of a legitimate deduction from a strictly universal law. Secondly, I find them for the most part too much inclined to trust to authority, even in cases where they might form an independent judgment. In fact, in philological studies, inasmuch as it is seldom possible to take in the whole of the premises at a glance, and inasmuch as the decision of disputed questions often depends on an aesthetic feeling for beauty of expression, or for the genius of the language, attainable only by long training, it must often happen that the student is referred to authorities even by the best teachers. Both faults are traceable to certain indolence and vagueness of thought, the sad effects of which are not confined to subsequent scientific studies. But certainly the best remedy for both is to be found in mathematics, where there is absolute certainty in the reasoning, and no authority is recognized but that of one’s own intelligence.
— Hermann von Helmholtz
In 'On the Relation of Natural Science to Science in general', Popular Lectures on Scientific Subjects, translated by E. Atkinson (1900), 25-26.
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I have been able to solve a few problems of mathematical physics on which the greatest mathematicians since Euler have struggled in vain … But the pride I might have held in my conclusions was perceptibly lessened by the fact that I knew that the solution of these problems had almost always come to me as the gradual generalization of favorable examples, by a series of fortunate conjectures, after many errors. I am fain to compare myself with a wanderer on the mountains who, not knowing the path, climbs slowly and painfully upwards and often has to retrace his steps because he can go no further—then, whether by taking thought or from luck, discovers a new track that leads him on a little till at length when he reaches the summit he finds to his shame that there is a royal road by which he might have ascended, had he only the wits to find the right approach to it. In my works, I naturally said nothing about my mistake to the reader, but only described the made track by which he may now reach the same heights without difficulty.
— Hermann von Helmholtz
(1891) As quoted in translation in Leo Koenigsberger and Frances A. Welby (trans.), Hermann von Helmholtz (1906), 180-181.
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I have found that a measurable period of time elapses before the stimulus applied to the iliac plexus of the frog is transmitted to the insertion of the crural nerve into the gastrocnemius muscle by a brief electric current. In large frogs, in which the nerves were from 50-60 mm. in length, and which were preserved at a temperature of 2-6° C, although the temperature of the observation chanber was between 11° and 150° C, the elapsed time was 0.0014 to 0.0020 of a second.
— Hermann von Helmholtz
'Vorläufiger Bericht über die Fortpflanzungsgeschwindigkeit der Nervenreizung' (1850). Trans. Edwin Clarke and C. D. O'Malley, The Human Brain and Spinal Cord (1968), 207.
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I think the facts leave no doubt that the very mightiest among the chemical forces are of electric origin. The atoms cling to their electric charges, and opposite electric charges cling to each other.
— Hermann von Helmholtz
'On the Modern Development of Faraday's Conception of Electricity', Journal of the Chemical Society 1881, 39, 302.
Science quotes on:  |  Atom (280)  |  Charge (35)

In all cases of the motion of free material points under the influence of their attractive and repulsive forces, whose intensity depends solely upon distance, the loss in tension is always equal to the gain in vis viva, and the gain in the former equal to the loss in the latter. Hence the sum of the existing tensions and vires vivae is always constant. In this most general form we can distinguish our law as the principle of the conservation of force.
— Hermann von Helmholtz
'On the Conservation of Force; a Physical Memoir'. In John Tyndall and William Francis (eds.), Scientific Memoirs: Natural Philosophy (1853), 121.
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Isolated facts and experiments have in themselves no value, however great their number may be. They only become valuable in a theoretical or practical point of view when they make us acquainted with the law of a series of uniformly recurring phenomena, or, it may be, only give a negative result showing an incompleteness in our knowledge of such a law, till then held to be perfect.
— Hermann von Helmholtz
'The Aim and Progress of Physical Science' (1869). Trans. E. Atkinson, Popular Lectures on Scientific Subjects (1873), 369.
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Just as a physicist has to examine the telescope and galvanometer with which he is working; has to get a clear conception of what he can attain with them, and how they may deceive him; so, too, it seemed to me necessary to investigate likewise the capabilities of our power of thought.
— Hermann von Helmholtz
'An Autobiographical Sketch' (1891). Trans. E. Atkinson, Popular Lectures on Scientific Subjects, Second Series, New Edition (1895), 284-5.
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Mathematics and music, the most sharply contrasted fields of scientific activity which can be found, and yet related, supporting each other, as if to show forth the secret connection which ties together all the activities of our mind, and which leads us to surmise that the manifestations of the artist’s genius are but the unconscious expressions of a mysteriously acting rationality.
— Hermann von Helmholtz
In Vorträge und Reden (1884, 1896), Vol 1, 122. As translated in Robert Édouard Moritz, Memorabilia Mathematica; Or, The Philomath’s Quotation-book (1914), 191. From the original German, “Mathematik und Musik, der schärfste Gegensatz geistiger Thätigkeit, den man auffinden kann, und doch verbunden, sich unterstützend, als wollten sie die geheime Consequenz nachweisen, die sich durch alle Thätigkeiten unseres Geistes hinzieht, und die auch in den Offenbarungen des künstlerischen Genius uns unbewusste Aeusserungen geheimnissvoll wirkender Vernunftmässigkeit ahnen lässt.”
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The iron labor of conscious logical reasoning demands great perseverance and great caution; it moves on but slowly, and is rarely illuminated by brilliant flashes of genius. It knows little of that facility with which the most varied instances come thronging into the memory of the philologist or historian. Rather is it an essential condition of the methodical progress of mathematical reasoning that the mind should remain concentrated on a single point, undisturbed alike by collateral ideas on the one hand, and by wishes and hopes on the other, and moving on steadily in the direction it has deliberately chosen.
— Hermann von Helmholtz
In Ueber das Verhältniss der Naturwissenschaften zur Gesammtheit der Wissenschaft, Vorträge und Reden (1896), Bd. 1, 178.
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The most startling result of Faraday’s Law is perhaps this. If we accept the hypothesis that the elementary substances are composed of atoms, we cannot avoid concluding that electricity also, positive as well as negative, is divided into definite elementary portions, which behave like atoms of electricity.
— Hermann von Helmholtz
Faraday Lecture (1881). In 'On the Modern Development of Faraday's Conception of Electricity', Journal of the Chemical Society 1881, 39, 290. It is also stated in the book by Laurie M. Brown, Abraham Pais and Brian Pippard, Twentieth Century P, Vol. 1, 52, that this is 'a statement which explains why in subsequent years the quantity e was occasionally referred to in German literature as das Helmholtzsche Elementarquantum'.
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The relationships of free and latent heat set forth in the language of the materialistic theory remain the same if in place of the quantity of matter we put the constant quantity of motion in accordance with the laws of mechanics. The only difference enters where it concerns the generations of heat through other motive forces and where it concerns the equivalent of heat that can be produced by a particular quantity of a mechanical or electrical force.
— Hermann von Helmholtz
'Wärme, physiologisch', Handwörterbuch der medicinischen Wissenschaften (1845). In Timothy Lenoir, The Strategy of Life (1982), 203.
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The total quantity of all the forces capable of work in the whole universe remains eternal and unchanged throughout all their changes. All change in nature amounts to this, that force can change its form and locality, without its quantity being changed. The universe possesses, once for all, a store of force which is not altered by any change of phenomena, can neither be increased nor diminished, and which maintains any change which takes place on it.
— Hermann von Helmholtz
The Conservation of Energy, from a Lecture, 1863. Trans. Edmund Blair Bolles (ed.), Galileo's Commandment: An Anthology of Science Writing (2000), 407.
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There is deposited in them [plants] an enormous quantity of potential energy [Spannkräfte], whose equivalent is provided to us as heat in the burning of plant substances. So far as we know at present, the only living energy [lebendige Kraft] absorbed during plant growth are the chemical rays of sunlight… Animals take up oxygen and complex oxidizable compounds made by plants, release largely as combustion products carbonic acid and water, partly as simpler reduced compounds, thus using a certain amount of chemical potential energy to produce heat and mechanical forces. Since the latter represent a relatively small amount of work in relation to the quantity of heat, the question of the conservation of energy reduces itself roughly to whether the combustion and transformation of the nutritional components yields the same amount of heat released by animals.
— Hermann von Helmholtz
Wissenschaftliche Abhandlungen (1847), 66. Trans. Joseph S. Fruton, Proteins, Enzymes, Genes: The Interplay of Chemistry and Biology (1999), 247.
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Think of the image of the world in a convex mirror. ... A well-made convex mirror of moderate aperture represents the objects in front of it as apparently solid and in fixed positions behind its surface. But the images of the distant horizon and of the sun in the sky lie behind the mirror at a limited distance, equal to its focal length. Between these and the surface of the mirror are found the images of all the other objects before it, but the images are diminished and flattened in proportion to the distance of their objects from the mirror. ... Yet every straight line or plane in the outer world is represented by a straight line or plane in the image. The image of a man measuring with a rule a straight line from the mirror, would contract more and more the farther he went, but with his shrunken rule the man in the image would count out exactly the same results as in the outer world, all lines of sight in the mirror would be represented by straight lines of sight in the mirror. In short, I do not see how men in the mirror are to discover that their bodies are not rigid solids and their experiences good examples of the correctness of Euclidean axioms. But if they could look out upon our world as we look into theirs without overstepping the boundary, they must declare it to be a picture in a spherical mirror, and would speak of us just as we speak of them; and if two inhabitants of the different worlds could communicate with one another, neither, as far as I can see, would be able to convince the other that he had the true, the other the distorted, relation. Indeed I cannot see that such a question would have any meaning at all, so long as mechanical considerations are not mixed up with it.
— Hermann von Helmholtz
In 'On the Origin and Significance of Geometrical Axioms,' Popular Scientific Lectures< Second Series (1881), 57-59. In Robert Édouard Moritz, Memorabilia Mathematica (1914), 357-358.
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When young Galileo, then a student at Pisa, noticed one day during divine service a chandelier swinging backwards and forwards, and convinced himself, by counting his pulse, that the duration of the oscillations was independent of the arc through which it moved, who could know that this discovery would eventually put it in our power, by means of the pendulum, to attain an accuracy in the measurement of time till then deemed impossible, and would enable the storm-tossed seaman in the most distant oceans to determine in what degree of longitude he was sailing?
— Hermann von Helmholtz
Hermann von Helmholtz, Edmund Atkinson (trans.), Popular Lectures on Scientific Subjects: First Series (1883), 29.
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Whoever, in the pursuit of science, seeks after immediate practical utility, may generally rest assured that he will seek in vain.
— Hermann von Helmholtz
Academical Discourse (22 Nov 1862) delivered at Heidelberg. Collected in Hermann von Helmholtz, Edmund Atkinson (trans.), Popular Lectures on Scientific Subjects: First Series (1883), 29.
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[In mathematics] we behold the conscious logical activity of the human mind in its purest and most perfect form. Here we learn to realize the laborious nature of the process, the great care with which it must proceed, the accuracy which is necessary to determine the exact extent of the general propositions arrived at, the difficulty of forming and comprehending abstract concepts; but here we learn also to place confidence in the certainty, scope and fruitfulness of such intellectual activity.
— Hermann von Helmholtz
In Ueber das Verhältnis der Naturwissenschaften zur Gesammtheit der Wissenschaft, Vorträge und Reden (1896), Bd. 1, 176. Also seen translated as “In mathematics we see the conscious logical activity of our mind in its purest and most perfect form; here is made manifest to us all the labor and the great care with which it progresses, the precision which is necessary to determine exactly the source of the established general theorems, and the difficulty with which we form and comprehend abstract conceptions; but we also learn here to have confidence in the certainty, breadth, and fruitfulness of such intellectual labor”, in Robert Édouard Moritz, Memorabilia Mathematica; Or, The Philomath’s Quotation-book (1914), 20. From the original German, “Hier sehen wir die bewusste logische Thätigkeit unseres Geistes in ihrer reinsten und vollendetsten Form; wir können hier die ganze Mühe derselben kennen lernen, die grosse Vorsicht, mit der sie vorschreiten muss, die Genauigkeit, welche nöthig ist, um den Umfang der gewonnenen allgemeinen Sätze genau zu bestimmen, die Schwierigkeit, abstracte Begriffe zu bilden und zu verstehen; aber ebenso auch Vertrauen fassen lernen in die Sicherheit, Tragweite und Fruchtbarkeit solcher Gedankenarbeit.”
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Quotes by others about Hermann von Helmholtz (6)

Ohm found that the results could be summed up in such a simple law that he who runs may read it, and a schoolboy now can predict what a Faraday then could only guess at roughly. By Ohm's discovery a large part of the domain of electricity became annexed by Coulomb's discovery of the law of inverse squares, and completely annexed by Green's investigations. Poisson attacked the difficult problem of induced magnetisation, and his results, though differently expressed, are still the theory, as a most important first approximation. Ampere brought a multitude of phenomena into theory by his investigations of the mechanical forces between conductors supporting currents and magnets. Then there were the remarkable researches of Faraday, the prince of experimentalists, on electrostatics and electrodynamics and the induction of currents. These were rather long in being brought from the crude experimental state to a compact system, expressing the real essence. Unfortunately, in my opinion, Faraday was not a mathematician. It can scarely be doubted that had he been one, he would have anticipated much later work. He would, for instance, knowing Ampere's theory, by his own results have readily been led to Neumann’s theory, and the connected work of Helmholtz and Thomson. But it is perhaps too much to expect a man to be both the prince of experimentalists and a competent mathematician.
From article 'Electro-magnetic Theory II', in The Electrician (16 Jan 1891), 26, No. 661, 331.
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[Helmholtz] is not a philosopher in the exclusive sense, as Kant, Hegel, Mansel are philosophers, but one who prosecutes physics and physiology, and acquires therein not only skill in developing any desideratum, but wisdom to know what are the desiderata, e.g., he was one of the first, and is one of the most active, preachers of the doctrine that since all kinds of energy are convertible, the first aim of science at this time. should be to ascertain in what way particular forms of energy can be converted into each other, and what are the equivalent quantities of the two forms of energy.
Letter to Lewis Campbell (21 Apr 1862). In P.M. Harman (ed.), The Scientific Letters and Papers of James Clerk Maxwell (1990), Vol. 1, 711.
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Ohm (a distinguished mathematician, be it noted) brought into order a host of puzzling facts connecting electromotive force and electric current in conductors, which all previous electricians had only succeeded in loosely binding together qualitatively under some rather vague statements. Even as late as 20 years ago, “quantity” and “tension” were much used by men who did not fully appreciate Ohm's law. (Is it not rather remarkable that some of Germany's best men of genius should have been, perhaps, unfairly treated? Ohm; Mayer; Reis; even von Helmholtz has mentioned the difficulty he had in getting recognised. But perhaps it is the same all the world over.)
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Specialists never contribute anything to their specialty; Helmholtz wasn’t an eye-specialist, but a German army doctor who invented the ophthalmoscope one Saturday afternoon when there wasn’t anything else to do. Incidentally, he rewrote whole chapters of physics, so that the physicists only know him as one of their own. Robert Mayer wasn’t a physicist, but another country doctor; and Pasteur, who made bacteriology, was a tanner’s son or a chemist, as you will.
In Fischerisms (1930), 7.
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Helmholtz—the physiologist who learned physics for the sake of his physiology, and mathematics for the sake of his physics, and is now in the first rank of all three.
In 'Aims and Instruments of Scientific Thought', Lectures and Essays, Vol. 1 (1901), 165.
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Ultima se tangunt. How expressive, how nicely characterizing withal is mathematics! As the musician recognizes Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert in the first chords, so the mathematician would distinguish his Cauchy, Gauss, Jacobi, Helmholtz in a few pages.
In Ceremonial Speech (15 Nov 1887) celebrating the 301st anniversary of the Karl-Franzens-University Graz. Published as Gustav Robert Kirchhoff: Festrede zur Feier des 301. Gründungstages der Karl-Franzens-Universität zu Graz (1888), 29, as translated in Robert Édouard Moritz, Memorabilia Mathematica; Or, The Philomath’s Quotation-book (1914), 186-187. From the original German, “Ultima se tangunt. Und wie ausdrucksfähig, wie fein charakterisirend ist dabei die Mathematik. Wie der Musiker bei den ersten Tacten Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert erkennt, so würde der Mathematiker nach wenig Seiten, seinen Cauchy, Gauss, Jacobi, Helmholtz unterscheiden.” [The Latin words translate as “the final touch”. —Webmaster]
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Carl Sagan Thumbnail In science it often happens that scientists say, 'You know that's a really good argument; my position is mistaken,' and then they would actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn't happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion. (1987) -- Carl Sagan
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