November 25 is Julius Robert von Mayer’s birthday. Mayer was a German physician who had a hobby of studying physics. Most of his work centered around how energy was transferred from one form to another. He was one of the first to recognize that plants converted light into chemical energy, and the process of oxidation was the primary source of energy in living creatures. He also outlined the earliest versions of what would become the first law of thermodynamics by writing “Energy is neither created nor destroyed”.
He attempted to publish his ideas as conservation of force, but had several basic errors due to his lack of formal physics training and was largely ignored. James Joule published his work a year later describing the conservation of energy and mechanical equivalent of heat and gained recognition as the ‘founder of modern thermodynamics’. This and the death of two of his children drove Mayer to the brink of suicide and spent time in mental institutions. After he left the institutions, he began publishing again and was recognized for his earlier work and given an honorary doctorate and personal nobility in Germany.
Notable Science History Events for November 25
1814 – Julius Robert von Mayer was born.
1884 – Adolph Wilhelm Hermann Kolbe died.
Kolbe was a German chemist who discovered many synthesis methods of organic molecules from inorganic components. This was the final proof to discredit the vitalism theory where organic compounds have some ‘spark’ and could only be created from other organic compounds. He also discovered a method of electrolysis of salts of fatty acids known as the Kolbe electrolysis. The Kolbe synthesis reaction is a method of making salicylic acid, the main component of aspirin.
Read more about Kolbe at September 27 in Science History.