Max Planck: The Tragic Choices

ullstein bild/Granger Collection
Max Planck, center, with Walther Nernst, Albert Einstein, Robert Andrews Millikan, and Max Laue, all physicists and winners of the Nobel Prize, Berlin, 1928

In the summer of 1946, as soon as possible after the end of World War II, the Royal Society of London organized a celebration for the three hundredth birthday of Isaac Newton. Newton was born on Christmas Day 1642, laid the foundations of modern physics with his masterpiece, Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, in 1686, and served as president of the Royal Society from 1703 until his death in 1727. The birthday party had been postponed because of the war. Surviving in the ruins of defeated Germany were many distinguished scientists, all of them loyal to their country and many of them tainted by active collaboration with the Nazi regime. The Royal Society invited only one man to represent Germany at the celebration. The chosen representative, serving as a symbol of the glorious past and the tragic downfall of German science, was Max Planck.

Planck was then eighty-eight years old, devoting the last years of his life to the rebuilding of German science. When he entered the auditorium at the Newton celebration, the leaders of British science gave him long and emotional applause. He had laid the foundations of quantum theory with his masterpiece, the paper “On the Theory of the Energy Distribution Law of the Normal Spectrum,” in 1900, and had served as president of the Prussian Academy of Sciences, the German equivalent of the Royal Society.

In that paper he had explained the observed intensity of light of various colors emitted from the surfaces of hot objects at various temperatures. His explanation involved a new and revolutionary idea: that energy could move around only in little packets rather than continuously. The little packets were later called quanta, and Planck’s idea was called quantum theory. Planck’s quantum theory and Einstein’s theory of relativity became the twin foundation stones on which the science of the twentieth century was built.

Besides inventing quantum theory, Planck had made another great contribution to science by welcoming and generously supporting the young Albert Einstein. In 1905, when Einstein, then an unknown employee of the Swiss patent office in Bern, sent five revolutionary papers to the physics journal that Planck edited in Berlin, Planck immediately recognized them as works of genius and published them quickly without sending them to referees. He did not agree with all of Einstein’s ideas, but he published all of them. He helped Einstein to move ahead in the academic world, and in 1913 invited him to a full professorship in Berlin. For twenty years Planck and Einstein were friends and colleagues in Berlin, leaders of a scientific community that remained creative and vibrant, in spite of the political and economic disarray that surrounded them. Planck was the rock-solid central figure of German…

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