Helmholtz and the Conservation of Energy
Contexts of Creation and Reception
760 pp., 7 x 9 in,
- Published: August 3, 2021
- Published: August 3, 2021
An examination of the sources Helmholtz drew upon for his formulation of the conservation of energy and the impact of his work on nineteenth-century physics.
In 1847, Herman Helmholtz, arguably the most important German physicist of the nineteenth century, published his formulation of what became known as the conservation of energy—unarguably the most important single development in physics of that century, transforming what had been a conglomeration of separate topics into a coherent field unified by the concept of energy. In Helmholtz and the Conservation of Energy, Kenneth Caneva offers a detailed account of Helmholtz's work on the subject, the sources that he drew upon, the varying responses to his work from scientists of the era, and the impact on physics as a discipline.
Caneva describes the set of abiding concerns that prompted Helmholtz's work, including his rejection of the idea of a work-performing vital force, and investigates Helmholtz's relationship to both an older generation of physicists and an emerging community of reformist physiologists. He analyzes Helmholtz's indebtedness to Johannes Müller and Justus Liebig and discusses Helmholtz's tense and ambivalent relationship to the work of Robert Mayer, who had earlier proposed the uncreatability, indestructibility, and transformability of “force.” Caneva examines Helmholtz's continued engagement with the subject, his role in the acceptance of the conservation of energy as the central principle of physics, and the eventual incorporation of the principle in textbooks as established science.
“The focal point of this study is Helmholtz's youthful and enigmatic pamphlet on the conservation of force from 1847. But its scope is immense, covering the complex historical developments that converged in this scientific classic and those that branched out of it.”
Daan Wegener, Utrecht University
A meticulous and excellent account. Caneva masterfully analyzes, through the exhaustive use of sources, the rocky emergence and, ultimately, communal acceptance of one of science's fundamental laws.”
David Cahan, Charles Bessey Professor Emeritus of History, University of Nebraska-Lincoln; author of Helmholtz: A Life in Science
“Caneva's study of Helmholtz and the conservation of energy is big, thorough, judicious, and definitive—a masterful analysis of the birth, reception, and eventual enthronement of one of the guiding concepts of modern physics.”
Steven Turner, Professor Emeritus in History, University of New Brunswick
“Caneva's impressively detailed piece of scholarship is undoubtedly a landmark contribution.”