Effect Measure

I’m guessing few of you have heard of the physician, Robert Mayer. After all, he lived more than 150 years ago. Yet he is a discoverer of one of Nature’s great laws, the First Law of Thermodynamics (otherwise known as Conservation of Energy). A strange topic for this site? My attention was drawn to it upon reading of the circumstances which prompted his discovery.

In February of 1840, newly graduated he sailed as the doctor aboard the Dutch merchant ship Java enroute to Indonesia. During his enforced leisure aboard ship he studied physiology. Three months after setting off from Rotterdam he was in the Dutch East Indies:

. . . a few days after our arrival at the Batavian roads [off Jakarta, capital of Indonesia] there spread in epidemic fahion an acute . . affection of the lungs. In the copious bloodlettings I performed, the blood let from the vein in the arm had an uncommon redness, so that from the color I could believe I had struck an artery. (from Hans Christian von Baeyer, Maxwell’s Demon, the source for most of the details in this post)

How Mayer got from there to the Conservation of Energy is a bit of a convoluted tale, but here’s the gist. The view at the time was that combustion of food carbon warmed the body which then changed red arterial blood from the heart to venous blood, dark with its remnants of ashes. But less body heat is needed in the tropics so the venous blood should stay brighter red. So far so good.

But Mayer became obsessed with his observation. As a youth he had tried to make a perpetual motion machine and discovered, as so many before him, that you cannot create work from nothing. It has to come from something and he jumped to the idea that motion of the body as well as the heat comes from the combustion of food. He then added his observation (made more famously by Count Rumford) that friction (motion) produces heat to draw the equivalence between heat and work. The body was like a steam engine that produces both heat and work.

Instead of performing experiments to measure the mechanical equivalent of heat Mayer used insight. He knew Lavoisier’s doctrine that matter was neither created nor destroyed, just transformed from one form to another (Conservation of Mass, as we now call it). Mayer was deeply religious and abhored materialism in any form. Wouldn’t it be better if there was something immaterial that was also conserved, that was just converted from heat to work and back again? As von Baeyer observes in his history of the Maxwell’s Demon concept, the Conservation of Energy was Mayer’s weapon against materialism. Whatever its motivation, the paper of the young doctor set out the First Law in close to its modern form: “Forces [energies] are thus indestructible, transformable, imponderable objects.” (cf. von Baeyer readable history).

What started out as an observation made during an epidemic of acute inflammation of the lungs in Indonesia, went on to become a cornerstone of modern science (and ironically, of the materialist viewpoint Mayer so detested). I have no doubt that today we would instead be fixated on whether we were watching the evolution of pandemic influenza from H5N1.

I just found this interesting. There is no lesson or moral I draw from it. Except maybe this. Not everything is about bird flu. Even things that look like bird flu.


  1. #1 william
    October 28, 2006

    “Not everything is bird flu. Even things that look like bird flu.”
    To fixate exclusively on H5N1 now is madness. XDR-TB (extreme drug resistant TB) has already infected more people in just one province in South Africa, than all those infected with bird flu since 2003. And all of the provinces in South Africa have many cases of XDR-TB. HIV is causing TB cases to be multiplied by 6. Over 1.5 million people died of TB in 2005; and XDR-TB is already an epidemic in Eastern Europe. At this moment in South Africa there appears to be an expotential explosion of XDR-TB cases. Of the 9 million cases reported in 2005, 400,000 were drug resistant. The cure rate for the disease is about 50%.
    Dr. Lawrence Broxmeyer, a medical researcher, says the world faces the most serious situation since WW2 regarding TB. WHO has already detected hot zones, with the highest incidence along the borders of the EU. WHO has found significant levels of multi-drug resistant TB throughout the Baltic and Eastern Europe.
    XDR-TB is defined as TB where neither the standard first line drugs, nor at least 3 of the 6 classes of backup drugs are effective.
    You of course will insist you are not in danger, since you do not have AIDS. But of 60 recent cases of death from XDR-TB, 44 had AIDS, and the rest with healthy adults.
    There are 2 billion people in the world infected with TB.
    Of course many of them are perfectly healthy. Please note that in the advanced stages of TB, the patient can bleed from the mouth, just like an H5N1 patient.
    While you are fixated on H5N1, you may be killed by XDR-TB. If this disease becomes resistant to the few remaining second line drugs used to treat it, the world may be near a pandemic of this disease that cannot be controlled. What happens if a pandemic of XDR-TB arrives in the US at the same time a bird flu pandemic arrives? Please see the article in Nature Magazine where is says XDR-TB may be impossible to control.

  2. #2 Red Crayon
    October 28, 2006

    Hermann von Helmholtz is usually regarded as the formulator of the first law.

    As you describe, Mayer’s thing was the mechanical equivalent of heat, though Joule usually gets the credit.

  3. #3 mary in hawaii
    October 28, 2006

    William: please look up “obsessive” and “fixated.”
    Last month you were passionately crying out in the darkness, trying to make us all aware of just how dangerous, how imminent was an H5N1 pandemic. Now you are, with similar passion, saying that to concern ourselves with H5N1 is “madness”, and the true scourge we should all be focussed on is XDR TB.
    Ok, no problem. But, as you did with your posts on H5N1, you say essentially the same thing over and over and over and over. William, we got it. We heard you. We are not discounting the dangers of either H5N1 nor of XDR TB nor of the possible combined infection of the two together. If what you are recommending is that every victim who has tested positively for H5N1 be simultaneously tested for XDR TB, fine. Good idea. Tell it to someone in WHO with the power to initiate such measures. But please stop saying it to us. You made your point. You have been heard, okay? Anything more is obsessing.

  4. #4 Dan
    October 28, 2006

    A google search on Lawrence Broxmeyer produced a lot of dodgy looking pseudo science on “alternative health” sites as well as details of the deregistration of a New York MD of the same name for fraudulent billing.
    Makes you wonder.

  5. #5 Joe in Australia
    October 28, 2006

    Please show some respect for “today’s single most brilliant and innovative medical investigator”. His personal website is full of titbits, such as the fact that he twice won the 2005 “Knowledge of Health Awards”. It must be a prestigous award. His webpage points out that this honor was shared by two Nobel prize winners! I might point out that I myself won the Not As Dumb As All That Award, an honour I shared with Mother Theresa, Neil Armstrong, and Queen Victoria.

    You can find some more references to him here:

    Google is really a frighteningly good tool for this sort of thing.

  6. #6 william
    October 29, 2006

    Mary in Hawaii,
    Revere needs to devote more posts to XDR-TB. Perhaps I should post to him asking he do it. But Revere may have other priorities, so who am I to make this request.
    But I have heard you and I will do as you request.

  7. #7 william
    October 29, 2006

    Joe in Australia and Dan,
    Joe, first I want to apologize to use for the insult.
    Second, I want to complement you and your superstar buddy for attacking Dr. Lawrence Broxmeyer, even though you are not sure it is the correct person. You 2 superstars are like wild dogs, that once they get the taste of blood in their mouths, they move in for the kill. I used to work in a prison in Dallas Texas, and I know your types. You would put a knife in your grandmother’s throat, and smile as she begged for mercy.
    You are both to be admired for your attacks, and I am sure you will find more easy victims. But you would never attack alone, because you are afraid.
    I live in Medellin Colombia. You obviously live in Australia. Here life for an English speaking caucasian is expendable. Please come and visit me. Here we have paid assissans that will kill you for $100. They love to see your types arrive in Colombia. Please come and visit me. I welcome you.
    I am an easy target. As you can see, I am obsessed by bird flu and XDR-TB. And Mary in Hawaii was kind enough to respond to my post with concern and care. That is called love. Of course you 2 do not understand the word love. You prefer to suck us down into the slimepit from which you evolved.
    Please say something intelligent about a public health issue or shut up.

  8. #8 william
    October 29, 2006

    joe in Australia,
    Please ignore all the comments in my previous post. I am an American and will be moving back to Dallas Texas in a week. I am just in Medellin visiting friends. I was just trying to be funny. I thought my attempt at humor might at least get you and your friend’s attention.
    But seriously, would you please try and make constructive comments, instead of attacking people?
    I come to this Blog site to seek information regarding life threatening diseases that may produce a pandemic, such as H5N1 and TB. You were completly justified in telling me to shut up, and stop posting so much. And I will do as you request.
    You are not the first person to come to this blog site to criticize. And of course your criticism was justified in my case.
    But why cannot you also analyze what others are saying, and give us your opinion? I am sure you have much to contribute. These are serious issues, and your fixation on attacking will not help.
    I apologize about the shut up comment in the previous post. Obviously it is not acceptable. And you may very well be correct about the doctor. And my attempt at being funny in that post probably is not very funny.
    But please use your intelligence to help us to understand these issues. XDR-TB is increasing in South Africa at a very fast rate. And obviously H5N1 is a serious threat in Indonesia. Please tell us what you think about these issues; and please ignore my attempt a humor in the previous post. After I read that post again, I realized the post is more stupid than funny. Please realize that I worked in a jail in Dallas for many years, and so what is funny to me may just be stupid to you. So please forget it, and help me to understand H5N1 and XDR-TB, before they both produce terrible pandemics. This is no time to be criticizing in non-constructive ways. We need to work together to understand the issues.
    Again I apologize for all the dumb, so called funny nonsense in the previous post. Please help us, by using your intelligence in constructive ways on this blog site, to better understand these very serious issues.
    Please have a good day, and I look forward to reading your future posts.

  9. #9 Chris Gotti
    November 7, 2006

    william l,

    You are to be applauded for all you’ve said and I wouldn’t apologize for any of it. Personally I agree with what Lawrence Broxmeyer has written regarding bird flu as atypical tuberculosis is disguise. What are the credentials of his distractors on this site? Have they appeared in JID (J.of Infectious Diseases)? Are they medically trained? In what?

    You make more sense than both of them put together. XDR-TB is the thing to keep your eye on, not science fiction.

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