University of Cambridge > Talks.cam > Departmental Seminars in History and Philosophy of Science > Frogs in space: physiological research into metric relationships and laws of nature

Frogs in space: physiological research into metric relationships and laws of nature

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A surprising amount of research into theories of space and time in the nineteenth century involved experiments done on frogs’ reactions to stimuli. William James and Hugo Munsterberg performed classic such experiments, but there was a much broader group involved. Those who cited the research and used it in their discussions of spatial relationships, and of the relationship between physiological and metric space, include Henri Poincaré and Ernst Mach. Hermann von Helmholtz used experiments on frogs to establish a number of his most important results, including the claim that sensations are not propagated instantaneously but take time to propagate along a nerve. Helmholtz used other experiments on frogs to argue against the existence of a vital force, a key element of his proof of the conservation of force (energy), and a turning point in nineteenth-century physiology and medicine. Frogs mediated between the physiological and the metric: in theories of space and movement, and in theories of metabolism, energy and sensation. The formulation of well-known scientific laws during this time sprang from physiological as well as physical reasoning, and the domain of application of those laws extended to living bodies as well as to inert physical masses. Philosophers who argued that spatiotemporal relationships are fundamental to all sciences, like Cassirer and arguably Poincaré, were drawing on this history in part. The history of amphibious research forms part of the background to accounts of scientific law, like Wigner’s and Mach’s, that draw on evolution, perception and consciousness, including Wigner’s controversial argument that consciousness collapses the wave function.

This talk is part of the Departmental Seminars in History and Philosophy of Science series.

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