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Whipple Library

Department of History and Philosophy of Science

Julius Lothar Meyer (1830-1895)Meyer was born in Varel, Oldenburg. After gaining an M.D. in 1854, he became interested in the gas analysis work of Robert Bunsen. Meyer joined Bunsen’s laboratory at Heidelberg for four months. During his stay, Meyer’s interests broadened from medicine to physiological chemistry and physical chemistry.

In autumn of 1856, Meyer followed his brother Oskar Emil Meyer to Königsberg to enrol to Franz Neumann’s mathematico-physical seminar. By the time Meyer joined the seminar, Neumann had already been running it for 22 years. Neumann’s central aim was to show his students that theories could help in assessing errors in experiments. The error analysis methods that Neumann taught his students included analytic determination of constant (or systematic) errors and the computation of accidental (or random) errors by the method of least squares.

Franz Ernst Neumann (1798-1895)

In the Königsberg seminar, Neumann instructed students to consider the relationship between theory and experiment. Theories could aid in making experiments more accurate and precise. This idea of the helpfulness of theories for empirical investigations was one of the main messages of Meyer’s textbook Modern Theories of Chemistry. From the first edition of the textbook onwards, Meyer argued that theories could be helpful in conducting chemical investigations. Later in his career, Meyer stated that

"When, in the year 1862, I undertook this work, [of writing the textbook] it was with the desire and the hope that its publication might contribute to the removal of the doubts and uncertainties, so frequently expressed at that time, as to the character of the views and theories then contending for supremacy in chemistry. It was my firm conviction that the confusion in the discussions of that time chiefly arose from erroneous views as to the importance of hypotheses and theories, upon which some were inclined to place too high a value, whilst others again did not sufficiently recognise their true importance. The chief aim of my undertaking as to show that hypothesis and theories based upon them are necessary aids to chemical investigation, and at the same time to assign to them their true value and place them in a position similar to that which they occupy in theoretical physics. …In this way, I had hoped to prepare the way for the further development of theoretical chemistry, and at the same time to make the more recent results accessible to wider circles; but when, two years later, after having for the third time revised the manuscript, it was handed to the printer … I seriously doubted whether it might prove useful to chemistry or its representatives. Being fully aware that a work dealing with theoretical matters alone was in direct opposition to the prevailing custom, which permitted only a few careful speculations and theoretical considerations to be mentioned in connection with the results of experimental investigation and although no pains had been spared, I yet entertained grave doubts as to whether the result was such that my colleagues would be ready to extend due consideration to one who had thus shown so little regard for the accepted custom."1

1: Meyer, Lothar. 1888. Modern Theories of Chemistry. Edited by translated from the German (5th ed.) by P. Phillips Bedson and W. Carleton Williams. London: Longmans, Green, and Co..