A History of Science
Tome I
Tome II
Tome III Tome IV

Book 3, chapter VIII
The conservation of energy
Mayer and Helmholtz
Here, then, was this obscure German physician, leading the humdrum life of a village practitioner, yet seeing such visions as no human being in the world had ever seen before.

The great principle he had discovered became the dominating thought of his life, and filled all his leisure hours. He applied it far and wide, amid all the phenomena of the inorganic and organic worlds. It taught him that both vegetables and animals are machines, bound by the same laws that hold sway over inorganic matter, transforming energy, but creating nothing. Then his mind reached out into space and met a universe made up of questions. Each star that blinked down at him as he rode in answer to a night-call seemed an interrogation-point asking, How do I exist? Why have I not long since burned out if your theory of conservation be true? No one had hitherto even tried to answer that question; few had so much as realized that it demanded an answer. But the Heilbronn physician understood the question and found an answer. His meteoric hypothesis, published in 1848, gave for the first time a tenable explanation of the persistent light and heat of our sun and the myriad other suns - an explanation to which we shall recur in another connection.

All this time our isolated philosopher, his brain aflame with the glow of creative thought, was quite unaware that any one else in the world was working along the same lines. And the outside world was equally heedless of the work of the Heilbronn physician. There was no friend to inspire enthusiasm and give courage, no kindred spirit to react on this masterful but lonely mind. And this is the more remarkable because there are few other cases where a master-originator in science has come upon the scene except as the pupil or friend of some other master-originator. Of the men we have noticed in the present connection, Young was the friend and confrere of Davy; Davy, the protege of Rumford; Faraday, the pupil of Davy; Fresnel, the co-worker with Arago; Colding, the confrere of Oersted; Joule, the pupil of Dalton. But Mayer is an isolated phenomenon - one of the lone mountain-peak intellects of the century. That estimate may be exaggerated which has called him the Galileo of the nineteenth century, but surely no lukewarm praise can do him justice.

Yet for a long time his work attracted no attention whatever. In 1847, when another German physician, Hermann von Helmholtz, one of the most massive and towering intellects of any age, had been independently led to comprehension of the doctrine of the conservation of energy and published his treatise on the subject, he had hardly heard of his countryman Mayer. When he did hear of him, however, he hastened to renounce all claim to the doctrine of conservation, though the world at large gives him credit of independent even though subsequent discovery.





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© Serge Jodra, 2006. - Reproduction interdite.