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Hermann von Helmholtz: Excerpts from a Speech Given on the Occasion of his Appointment as Pro-Rector at the University of Heidelberg (1862)

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The four elements known to the ancient world and to medieval alchemy have now, with modern chemistry, grown in number to 64; the last three of these were discovered through a method developed at our university, which promises to deliver many similar finds. But it is not merely the number of elements which has grown so extraordinarily; such progress has been made in the methods which produce complex compounds of elements that the so-called organic chemistry – which encompasses only compounds of carbon with hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, and a few other elements – has become a discipline unto itself.

In ancient times, "as many as the stars in the heavens" was the natural expression for a number which exceeded the boundaries of our comprehension. Pliny finds Hipparch's attempt to enumerate the stars and their locations presumptuous (rem etiam Deo improbam). And yet up until the seventeenth century, without the aid of telescopes, star charts counted only 1000 to 1500 stars of the first five orders of size. At present, there are several observatories at work on extending this catalogue to the tenth order of size, which would yield a total number of about 200,000 fixed stars, all to be recorded, their positions determined. As a consequence of this research, a great number of new planets have been discovered; before 1781 only six planets were known, now we are aware of seventy-five.

When we survey this huge activity in all branches of science, we are likely to be as shocked by humanity's daring as was the chorus in Sophocles' Antigone, when it called out:

"Much is astounding, but nothing more astounding than man."

Who can oversee the whole? Who can hold the connections in hand and find his way? The natural consequence is that every individual researcher chooses an ever smaller area as his own sphere and can have only incomplete knowledge of related fields. We are now inclined to laugh when we hear that, in the seventeenth century, Keppler was appointed as Professor of Mathematics and Morals in Gratz, or that in Leyden, at the beginning of the eighteenth century, Boerhave was Professor of Botany, Chemistry, and Clinical Medicine, which naturally included pharmacology as well. Today we would need at least four teachers – at fully-staffed universities, seven or eight – to cover all of these fields. It is the same with other disciplines.

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