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Conservation of Energy from human physiology

  1. May 30, 2013 #1
    From the wiki page on Hermann von Helmholtz:

    "an 1847 physics treatise on the conservation of energy was written in the context of his medical studies and philosophical background. He discovered the principle of conservation of energy while studying muscle metabolism. He tried to demonstrate that no energy is lost in muscle movement, motivated by the implication that there were no vital forces necessary to move a muscle. This was a rejection of the speculative tradition of Naturphilosophie which was at that time a dominant philosophical paradigm in German physiology."

    What were these 'vital forces' and what was the paradigm at that time? How would this lead to CoE?
  2. jcsd
  3. May 30, 2013 #2
    Vital force would be "life force".
    A living thing was thought to possess something extra, a spark of life, that distinguished it from inorganic materials. So the life energy would be something different than the inanimate object energy.

    I would have to speculate that Helmholtz rejected that idea, and made the assumption that living and non-living are governed by the same laws.
  4. May 30, 2013 #3


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    The term 'vital forces' was probably just a fill-in for use when they ran out of serious explanations for some of the life processes. Biology was a devil for doing quantitative measurements in those days .(Still is, I think, or people would have sorted out slimming diets and fitness by now).
    Hats off to him if he could do serious Input / Output measurements and get conclusive results. It was much easier to work with steam engines to prove the point about CoE.
  5. May 30, 2013 #4
    Reminds me of a bloke called Santorio Santorio (yes, twice)
  6. May 30, 2013 #5


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    I think it's connected to the concept "vitalism", which was a paradigm before the development of organic chemistry. The discovery of the Wöhler synthesis was an early refutation of vitalism;

  7. May 30, 2013 #6
    It's interesting to study scientific history and changing paradigms.
  8. May 30, 2013 #7


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    Fun stuff, quote;

  9. May 30, 2013 #8
  10. May 30, 2013 #9


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    Even though I posted some fun quotes, I'd like to add that it would of course not be fair to ridicule every vitalist from that time. o:) Hindsight is easy for us living now. Many scientists probably did the best they could.
  11. May 31, 2013 #10
    I am sure it is alive and flourishing quite well in some corners of society.
  12. May 31, 2013 #11
    This Moliere was a comedian, so it seems like the scientists of those days weren't doing so well. Perhaps it was easier to ridicule science back then. Hmm..

    I agree, hindsight is easier, if only more people would learn from history.
  13. May 31, 2013 #12
    Perhaps. But that's different from scientists in the past.
    Last edited: May 31, 2013
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