April 23rd in German History: The Birth of Max Planck

Max Planck | Biography, Discoveries, & Quantum Theory | Britannica

When one thinks of physicists one generally thinks of Einstein, the most famous, or maybe more recent examples like Stephen Hawking. One who I think deserves far more recognition and popular attention than he receives is Max Planck.

Planck was born on April 23rd of 1858 in the city of Kiel in Holstein. Planck was there when Prussian and Austrian troops entered the city during the Second Schleswig War, but his family moved to Munich three years after in 1867. Planck first encountered physics when Herman Muller taught him about the conservation of energy, and he would go on to study theoretical physics and earn a doctorate in it by 1880. Planck would hold various academic positions but would not become a person of note until 1900 when he presented a paper detailing an explanation of phenomena he had observed in blackbody radiation. In it, he argued that energy is transferred in amount of specific size and in a discrete manner. He proposed the equation E=hv for the energy of a quanta, his proposed unit of energy, where h is his constant and v is the frequency of the radiation. In order to create this equation Planck had to assume a statistical interpretation of the second Law of Thermodynamics which essentially says that entropy is not decreased in a reaction because it is statistically very unlikely. Initially, Plank did not think of the quantized energy assumption as something of great importance, but it has since been considered the birth of modern physics. Planck was a conservative minded scientist and tried to reconcile energy quanta with classical physics, but to no avail. Following the publishing of his work, Planck became one of the most influential scientists in Europe. He was one of the few who initially realized the importance of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity and worked to extend it and make it accepted in Europe. Einstein was able to convince Planck of the truth of the photon at the First Solvay Conference and the two became friends after Planck, as Dean of the University of Berlin, made Einstein a professor there. Planck would make no more major scientific contributions, but would become the most influential scientist in Germany because of what he had already done. He initially supported the First World War but towards the end began to criticize Germany’s war policies. During the interwar period he initially attempted to wait out the Nazis, believing they would lose power quickly, but eventually began to subvert them by allowing Jewish scientists to continue working. Planck thus became a target of the Nazi’s ire and was pressured not to seek another term as the President of Kaiser Wilhelm Society in 1936. The Prussian Academy was taken over by the Nazis in 1938 and Planck resigned in protest. Planck continued to give talks but generally faded from the public scene and spent most of his time in his home in Berlin. In 1944 his son Erwin was arrested for suspected involvement in the plot to kill Hitler and he was executed in 1945. This devastated Planck and he died in the the city of Gottingen in 1947.

Max Planck was an interesting case of a scientist who disliked the implications of his own discovery and attempted to push back against work that built on it. He, along with Einstein, especially detested the philosophical implications of the Quantum Mechanics of Heisenberg and Pauli but was unable to argue against the experimental results which supported it. Planck should be remembered for his groundbreaking work, yes, but also for what his attitude shows us. Those who revolutionize science are not always eager mavericks heedlessly pushing forward without any concern for what their discoveries mean. Many, like Max Planck, are forced towards their conclusions out of desperation and are unwilling in their revolutionizing of science and the world at large.

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