Science Book a Day Interviews Gabriel Finkelstein


Special thanks to Gabriel Finkelstein for answering 5 questions about his recently featured book – Emil du Bois-Reymond: Neuroscience, Self, and Society in Nineteenth-Century Germany

I am an associate professor at the University of Colorado Denver, where I teach the history of Europe, Germany, science, exploration, and war. I studied physics at Amherst and history at Princeton; I held posts at UPenn, Göttingen, UCLA, and Princeton; and I spent a total of nine years in France, Germany, and China. My biography of Emil du Bois-Reymond took me more than two decades to research. – From profile

Author’s Twitter:

#1 – What was the impetus for Emil du Bois-Reymond: Neuroscience, Self, and Society in Nineteenth-Century Germany? 

Having lived in France and studied physics, I thought I’d work on French physics for my dissertation. But a number of factors steered me toward a German topic: Germany had been studied less than France, it was easier to get funding to go there, its history seemed more significant, and Berlin was offbeat and interesting. Halfway through my second semester of graduate school Kathryn Olesko delivered a fascinating lecture on the contributions of the 1847 Group to the discovery of the conservation of energy. I had never heard of this connection between physics and physiology, and when I questioned Olesko after class she suggested that I write a biography of the Group (Emil du Bois-Reymond, Ernst Brücke, Hermann Helmholtz, and Carl Ludwig). I leapt at the opportunity, ultimately narrowing my research to the least studied of the four friends. It seemed like a perfect plan: du Bois-Reymond’s life offered an interesting mix of sciences, cultures, and languages, his papers waited in the Berlin State Library, and the Berlin Program had offered me a grant. There was just one small problem—I had no idea what I was getting into.

#2 – This is the first biography of du Bois-Reymond in some time. Why has it been so long since a biography has been written about him? Why has he been largely forgotten?

There are some older overviews of his life, and a few scholars looked at particular aspects of his work, but no one ever bothered to work through his papers. The reason is plain: du Bois-Reymond left an enormous legacy. His archive contains between eight and ten thousand items, most of which are written in an antique scrawl. Add to this his fluency in German, French, and English, his contributions to science, philosophy, history, and letters, and the dearth of biographies of German scientists, and the prospect is daunting. Wiser historians steered clear.

Why we don’t remember du Bois-Reymond is harder to answer. In my introduction I pointed to several reasons: he’s difficult to pigeonhole, he clashes with our image of Imperial Germany, he resists our condescension, and he’s unnervingly modern in his outlook. Let me add a few more: Freud, James, Haeckel, Mach, Wittgenstein, and Sarton all hid their debts to him, philosophers tend not to cite, German historians generally ignore science, science historians generally ignore Germany, disciplines rarely question their narratives, and until recently intellectuals of the 19th century seemed rather fuddy-duddy. I’m hoping to change that. Emil du Bois-Reymond reflects the image that contemporary Germany wants to project: witty, liberal, tolerant, and cosmopolitan. With any luck he’ll catch on and make me rich. I see travel mugs, action figures, a film franchise….

#3 – When writing a biography, how do your ideas change about the subject as you write the book?

People warned me that du Bois-Reymond was an unpleasant character, and that even if I didn’t think so, I’d inevitably grow to hate him. Fortunately, this wasn’t the case. The more I learned about du Bois-Reymond, the more I came to respect him.

Many biographers refuse to portray their subjects as heroic. Their attitudes express an assumption of superiority more than they do contempt: Aren’t we telling the story? Don’t we know how it will end? For me the most surprising turn came when I realized that du Bois-Reymond understood more than I did. He didn’t save his papers so I could play God with his biography; he saved them to remind me that art will never compare to life. I can’t think of anything more inspiring.

#4 – How did you go about the research for this book? How long did it take to do?

I began with a brilliant hypothesis that I failed to confirm. Then I fell into a depression, because dissertations usually aren’t awarded for disproof. So I started over from scratch. In the winter of 1990/91 I asked my colleague Helmut Smith what to read on German cultural history, and he mentioned work by the literary scholar W.H. Bruford. The German Tradition of Self-Cultivation gave me just the key I was looking for. Du Bois-Reymond’s life made most sense as a Bildungsroman.

After that everything fell into place. Du Bois-Reymond’s life divides into neat sections, so I just went through his papers in chronological order. Every time I had enough material for a chapter I’d stop reading and write up what I found. If I came across anything related to a later part of his life I’d just file it away and tell myself I’d come back to it.

My biography is built on correspondence. To convert it into a narrative, I made notes as I read. Afterwards, I would go back and organize these notes by theme. All this sounds simple enough, but it wasn’t easy. Dealing with du Bois-Reymond’s science meant that I had to master thousands of pages of his scientific writing. It took me months. Then there’s the nightmare of paleography. Back in the nineteenth-century Germans didn’t use the Latin alphabet; they wrote in a script called Kurrent, which isn’t too hard going when penned by professional scribes, but which is generally indecipherable otherwise. To give you just one example, it took me two years to read, transcribe, and annotate du Bois-Reymond’s correspondence with his wife.

I lived in Berlin and worked on this project from May, 1990 till December, 1995. Finally, I asked my advisor if I could stop and cut off the narrative in the middle. He agreed. I spent my last four months at the Berlin State Library photocopying sources. Every time I moved I’d have to ship these boxes of papers with me. This was the day before the internet and digital cameras.

Many times I cursed my choice of subject. Who wants to buy a two-volume biography of a German scientist no one has ever heard of? I was stuck with seeing the project through to the end. Before I finished I wrote six new chapters—enough for most first books. But even though I wish more people recognized du Bois-Reymond’s importance, and even though I probably should have written his biography as my last book, I don’t regret taking him on. I woke up every scared and excited for twenty years. Scared and excited beats bored and listless any day.

#5 – Are you working on any new projects/books you can tell us about?

I’d like to edit an English translation of du Bois-Reymond’s essays. I really think he deserves a wider readership. I’m also working on a study of the challenges that “scientific historians” presented to discipline of history during the 1860s and 1870s. With luck you’ll hear from me again before I need a cane.

[Image Credit:,%20Gabriel.jpg ]

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