Hermann Stoffkraft

Hermann Stoffkraft
First page of James Maxwell's last poem, "A Paradoxical Ode", sent to Peter Tait, but addressed to the fictional materialist hero Dr. Hermann Stoffkraft of Tait and Balfour Stewart’s 1878 novel Paradoxical Philosopher. [2]
In literature, Hermann Stoffkraft, or Dr. Hermann Stoffkraft, as he was called, is the fictitious German materialist of Scottish physicists Balfour Stewart and Peter Tait’s 1878 novel Paradoxical Philosopher, outlining an imaginary dialogue between Stoffkraft and scientifically minded Christians, one of whom shares the given name of Tait’s son, at the end of which the blunt polemic miraculously converts Stoffkraft to a belief in the doctrines of The Unseen Universe, Stewart and Tait’s earlier 1875 publication on an attempted synthesis of religion and science, centered around their conservation of energy based ‘principle of continuity’, argued to account for the Christian version of immorality. [1]

The character was a hastily-written reaction to Irish physicist John Tyndall's 1874 statement, during his presidential address at the opening of the Belfast British Association for the Advancement of Science meeting, that:

“All religious theories, schemes and systems, which embrace notions of cosmogony, or which otherwise reach into the domain of science, must, in so far as they do this, submit to the control of science, and relinquish all thought of controlling it.”

The Stoffkraft character was thus Tyndall incarnate and the story plays out with Stewart and Tait convincing or rather converting Tyndall in the end to the view that religion and science can be reconciled or specifically that morality-based Christian immortality can be explained in scientific terms.

The surname ‘Stoffkraft’, as American statistical mathematician Daniel Silver notes, is a conjunction of the German terms stoff, meaning material, and kraft, meaning force; the first name ‘Hermann’, most likely a tribute to German physicist Hermann Helmholtz, the formulator of the conservation of kraft (or conservation of force version of the later more robust conservation of energy). Hence, the fictional name Hermann Stoffkraft, translates as Helmholtz Matter-Force.

These types of hidden pubs were typical of postcard correspondences between James Maxwell, William Thomson, and Peter Tait, such as in using "θΔcs" as code shorthand for the newly forming science thermo-dynamics. Silver, to note, posits that the Stoffkraft character might have been themed on German physician-philopher Ludwig Buchner and his 1855 book Kraft and Stoff (Force and Matter) who is described as the champion of ‘scientific materialism’ and the outright rejection of a universe produced by creative power, which Buchner refers to as the ignorant view. [3]

Paradoxical Ode
Maxwell addressed his last and dying poem, entitled ‘A Paradoxical Ode’, in which he defined Tait and Stewart as prime examples of the paradoxical philosophers, to ‘Hermann Stoffkraft’, in which he extolled on his enigmatic final thoughts on science and religion, choice and chance, death and eternity. [2]

Taped to the bottom of the page of Tait’s scrapbook is an addendum, sent by Maxwell some days afterwards.

Last three lines of Ode to Stoffkraft should be as follows.
While Residents in the Unseen–
Aeons or Emanations – intervene,
And from my shrinking soul the Unconditioned screen.

(add discussion)

See also
William James (and his end two-month battle with Henry Adams over the human implications of the second law)
Forbes Allan (and his character ‘Ilya Meiliakin’, modeled on Ilya Prigogine, and human thermodynamics discussion)

1. (a) Stewart, Belfour and Tait, Peter G. (1878). Paradoxical Philosophy: a Sequel to the Unseen Universe. Macmillan.
(b) Stewart, Balfour and Tait, Peter G. (1875). The Unseen Universe: or Physical Speculations on a Future State. Macmillan.
2. Silver, Daniel S. (2007). “My Soul’s an Amphicheircal Knot: the Last Poem of James Clerk Maxwell”, SouthAlabama.edu.
3. Buchner, Ludwig. (1855). Matter and Force (Kraft and Stoff). Publisher.

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