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Max Planck - Scientist

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Max Planck was a German physicist whose work was revolutionary to the world of classical physics, his most remarkable contribution to the field being his theses on energy quantisation. Planck's biography is analagously remarkable to his work; the first half of his life was one marked by success, brilliant work which ended up earning Planck world-wide recognition and a Nobel Prize for Physics in 1918. The latter half was marked by tragedy, culminating with the execution of his son Erwin by the Nazi regime in 1945.

From Childhood to Quanta

Max Planck was born in on 23 April, 1858, in Kiel, Germany, and was christened Max Karl Ernst Ludwig Planck. The Plancks had a long tradition of academia; Max's father Johann Julius Wilhelm von Planck was professor of law in Kiel, his grandfather Heinrich Ludwig had been a theology professor in Göttingen and his great-grandfather Gottlieb Jacob had been a professor in church history, also in Göttingen. The list of famous Plancks could go on, but to be brief, it is simply worth noting the environment in which Planck's childhood and early development took place.

Blessed with perfect pitch, Planck was a virtuoso pianist. In 1867, The Planck family moved to Munich and there Planck attended the famous Gymnasium Maximilianeum. When in 1874 he finished school with brilliant marks, Max Planck was seriously considering a career in music. However, by an unknown twist of fate, instead of choosing music he ended up enrolling in the faculty of philosophy, which at that time offered a course comparable to what we would now refer to as physics, with a strong bent towards maths.

Planck became a doctor of physics in 1879 and started lecturing one year later - climbing higher yet in the academic ranks. Already by 1892 he was a renowned and respected full professor at Berlin in a field which at that time commanded respect from even the most important of physicists - theoretical physics. However, in spite of this, general academic consensus was that theoretical physics had no practical use and was therefore an intellectually onanistic pursuit. This attitude - along with the structural theories of the entirety of classical physics - collapsed in 1900, when Planck published his account of the (popularly perceived as being irrelevant, but yet lingering) problem of blackbody radiation, a phenomenon which he used quantitized amounts of energy to explain. In other words, everything comes in natural multiples of a constant 'h', which is today named after Planck. This constant h has been determined empirically by looking very closely at hydrogen spectra, its value is 6,6626·10-34Js.

Quantum Evolution - Planck the Reluctant Revolutionary

Plank's physical concoctions demanded energy quantization to work properly (cf also quantum mechanics). The formal structures which he used were well-known in the context of acoustics and wave mechanics. However, this apparently minor quibble came down as an avalanche upon the rest of the scientific community, as Planck's theory rearranged all of known physics. Classical physicists were aghast and the ramifications of Planck's work caused every field of physics to have to be refloated. Eventually the dust settled and all parties involved had to concede Planck's validity. It was his work which eventually ignited the Quantum revolution and gave birth to the quantum theory (which gave us lasers and computers).

Planck at 42, a classically trained physicist, was not much of a revolutionary. The quantitation that he proposed had simply resulted from the description of a phenomenon. Planck was reluctant to accept that it was also a valid interpretation of the problem, since in his eyes it was a simple mathematical description. The problem with his proposition, however, is that - suddenly - everything seemed to fit. In 1918 Planck was awarded the Nobel Prize for his insight.

Planck himself, as a classical physicist, was uncomfortable with the quantum physics for which he was responsible, as one can read into the man's own words:

Physics used to be simpler and more harmonic in those days, and it was for that reason more satisfying. One used to have beautiful theories and one could rely on them.
An important scientific innovation rarely makes its way by gradually winning over and converting its opponents: it rarely happens that Saul becomes Paul. What does happen is that its opponents gradually die out and that the growing generation is familiarised with the idea from the beginning.
Science cannot solve the ultimate mystery of nature. And that is because, in the last analysis, we ourselves are part of nature and therefore part of the mystery that we are trying to solve.
We have no right to assume that any physical laws exist, or if they have existed up until now, that they will continue to exist in a similar manner in the future.

Planck's Tragic Life

The second half of Max Planck's life was marked by tragedy. His first wife, Marie Merck, died in 1909 leaving him with four children: Karl, Emma, Margarete and Erwin. In 1911 Planck married her niece, Marga von Hösslin, and in December, 1911, their child Hermann was born. Karl was killed in action in 1916 during the First World War. Margarete died in 1916 of a lung embolism seven days after giving birth to a daughter. Her twin sister Emma married her husband and died in 1918, seven days after giving birth to a daughter. These tragic events had a serious effect on Planck's life, but yet Planck found respite in his work, in music and in religion.

Parallel to his personal tragedies, his career continued to flourish. Planck became permanent secretary of the Prussian Academy of Sciences, a post he held from 1912 to 1938; was elected to Foreign Membership of the Royal Society in 1926, becoming President of the renowned Kaiser-Wilhelm Society before the Second World War. The Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gesellschaft für die Forderung von Forschung und Wissenschaft was founded in 1911 with the aim of promoting science and research. It soon became one of the most reputable scientific foundations world-wide. Planck was the second president of the Kaiser-Wilhelm society.

During the first years of the Nazi regime (1933 - 1939) problems also started to creep into Planck's professional life. Planck tried to use his reputation and authority to attenuate the effect of Germany's racist policies on the Jewish scientists. In a meeting with Adolf Hitler he tried to convince him to spare (at least) the scientific community from racial or political persecutions, but with little effect. Planck described this meeting in his notes, commenting that Hitler was obstinate and refused to accept Planck's points. Towards the end of the meeting Adolf started to fidget around and mumbled 'You know what people say about me? They say I suffer from weak nerves.' Hitler then started shouting, 'Slander!'. Planck saw there was no point in continuing the meeting and left the room.

In 1943 Planck was to be honoured by the city of Frankfurt with the Goethe-Award. For political reasons, however, Joseph Goebbels forbade the award, 'because Planck has been repeatedly speaking for the Jew Albert Einstein'. Shortly after that, his house in Berlin was destroyed by bombs - his memoirs and most of his original manuscripts were lost. His son Erwin was arrested in 1944 and was tortured to death in 1945 by the Gestapo for being involved in a plot to assassinate Hitler - or in truth, for knowing someone involved in a plot to assassinate Hitler. Planck, at 85 and suffering severely from arthritis, fled to the countryside and lived in a friend's farmhouse for almost a year. In the last months of the war the farm had to be evacuated and Plank, aged 87, camped with his wife in the forest. After the war ended he returned to Göttingen.

Planck's Last Achievement

Shortly after the end of the Second World War, in 1946, many propositions were being made to disband the Kaiser-Wilhelm Society, which panged nastily of German Imperialism, a flavour not popular after the war. This issue was addressed in 1946, during the Newton Tercentenary Celebration of the Royal Society, to which Planck was invited - the only German to have been met by this accolade. He left everyone deeply impressed, putting across an exemplary attitude of German scholasticism and scientific excellence. It was at this Celebration that two Englishmen, Sir Henry Dale and Colonel Bertie K Blount, proposed an excellent resolution to the problem at hand; and the society, in accordance with their proposition, was rebranded the 'Max-Planck Gesellschaft'. The official inauguration of the 'Max Planck Gesellschaft' took place on 11 September, 1946, in Bad Driburg. Planck was unanimously elected its president. The society remains a respected scientific endeavour to this day.

The last year in Planck's life was relatively quiet. He retired some months before his death, almost excusing himself: 'I cannot be scientifically productive with my 89 years'. Planck died on 4 October, 1947, at the age of 89. He was mourned by his students and his students' students.

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