Max Planck (1858-1947)

by Raul Barron


Max Planck

Max Planck made many contributions to theoretical physics and attained his fame via his role as originator of the quantum theory. This theory revolutionized our understanding of atomic and subatomic processes, it is one of the fundamental theories of 20th-century physics, and has led to industrial and military applications that affect every aspect of modern life.


Early life

Max Karl Ernst Ludwig Planck was born on April 23, 1858, in Kiel, Germany. When he was nine years old, he entered Munich's renowned Maximilian Gymnasium, where his interest in physics and mathematics developed. Although Planck excelled in all subjects, after graduation at age 17 he ultimately chose physics over classical philology or music because he had concluded that physics was where his greatest originality lay. Music remained part of his life as he was an excellent pianist who found great joy in playing his favorite works of Schubert and Brahms. He was also an outdoors man who loved taking long walks each day, hiking and mountain climbing even into his twilight years.

Planck entered the University of Munich in the fall of 1874 and transferred to the University of Berlin in 1877 where his intellectual capacities were brought to a focus as the result of his independent study of Rudolf Clausius' writings on thermodynamics. He then returned to Munich and received his doctoral degree in July 1879 at the tender age of 21. He completed his qualifying dissertation in 1880 and became a lecturer. In 1885, he was appointed associate professor at the University of Kiel. In 1889, Planck received an appointment to the University of Berlin where he was promoted to full professor in 1892. His Berlin lectures on all branches of theoretical physics were held in high regard within the scientific community for many years and he remained in Berlin for the rest of his active life.

Planck was a revolutionary in a sense because he became a theoretical physicist at a time when theoretical physics was not yet recognized as a discipline in its own right. Some of the influences that inspired him, was the law of the conservation of energy and the second law of thermodynamics which became the subject of his doctoral dissertation at Munich. These influences played a pivotal role in his subsequent research that eventually led him to discover the quantum of action, now known as Planck's constant h, in 1900. Planck's concept of energy quanta conflicted fundamentally with all past physical theory. He was driven to introduce it strictly by the force of his logic and is considered by some historians as a reluctant revolutionary. It wasn't until years later via the work of such scientists like Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr, that the far-reaching consequences of Planck's achievement would be validated. The ultimate validation arrived in 1918 when Planck was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics.


Later life

Planck made no other significant discoveries of comparable importance to his 1900 work but remained a vital figure within the scientific community. He contributed to various branches of optics, thermodynamics and statistical mechanics, physical chemistry, and other fields. He was also the first prominent physicist to endorse Einstein's special theory of relativity. Planck became permanent secretary of the mathematics and physics sections of the Prussian Academy of Sciences in 1912 and held that position until 1938. He also served as president of the Kaiser Wilhelm Society from 1930 to 1937. These offices and others placed Planck in a position of great authority. Yet his authority was less a result of appointments than it was due to the respect he commanded. Planck was considered to be a man of such high personal integrity and wisdom that he was once allowed to speak directly with Adolph Hitler and convey his opinions against Germany's racial policies.

Planck endured many personal tragedies after the age of 50. In 1909, his first wife died after 22 years of marriage, leaving him with two sons and twin daughters. Planck's oldest son, Karl, was killed in action in 1916, his daughter Margarete died in childbirth in 1917, and another daughter, Emma also died in childbirth in 1919. During World War II, Planck's house in Berlin was completely destroyed by bombs in 1944 and his youngest son, Erwin, was implicated in the attempt made on Hitler's life on July 20, 1944. As a consequence, Erwin died a horrible death at the hands of the Gestapo in 1945. Erwin's death destroyed Planck's will to live. By the end of the war, Planck, his second wife and his son by her, moved to Göttingen where he died on October 4, 1947. Max Planck made brilliant discoveries in Physics which revolutionized the way we think about atomic and subatomic processes. His theoretical work was widely respected by fellow scientists and his tragic life story should have caught Hollywood's attention.

Sources of information:

  1. Grolier's Encyclopedia on CD-ROM
  2. Physics lectures at Modesto Junior College (Peter Wiinikka)
  3. Encyclopedia Britannica