A retrospective: Max Planck

Max Karl Ernst Ludwig Planck, was born in Kiel, Holstein, in northern Germany, in April, 1858. As a baby he was baptised as Karl Ernst Ludwig Marx Planck, but he adopted the name Max for his entire life. At the age of ten his family moved to Munich and his intelligence was spotted by a tutor called Hermann Müller, who taught him mathematics, mechanics and astronomy. At aged 17 he graduated from school with a strong interest and desire to devote his life to physics, especially energy. At 1874 he began studying at the University of Munich where he found his interest in theoretical physics. Three years later he studied at the University of Berlin for a year, and here he discovered his chosen field of expertise, thermodynamics.

In 1878 he easily obtained his initial qualifications, and by 1880 he obtained the two highest qualifications that existed; a Doctorate and a Habilitation, for his ‘theory of dynamics‘. In 1885 he acquired a position at the University of Kiel as an associate professor in theoretical physics, and by 1892 he became a full-time professor.

“Science enhances the moral value of life, because it furthers a love of truth and reverence—love of truth displaying itself in the constant endeavor to arrive at a more exact knowledge of the world of mind and matter around us, and reverence, because every advance in knowledge brings us face to face with the mystery of our own being.” – Max Planck

Max Planck went on to revolutionise and completely turn science upside down when he published his paper on his ‘quantum theory’, which is the assumption that energy is comprised of individual units he called ‘quanta’. Five years later, Albert Einstein came together with the same theory about how radiation works, and his theory of relativity, and quantum mechanics is the foundation of modern science.

Quantum physics studies the root and the basis of all matter, and nature, in the form of atoms and subatomic particles. The Wave–particle duality theory was the early debate in quantum physics as to whether something like light was waves, or in fact made of particles, and this was debated in photoelectric effect, where electrons emit when light hits an object. Einstein claimed that light and matter could contain properties of both waves and particles, or sometimes just one or the other.

“The Theory of Relativity confers an absolute meaning on a magnitude which in classical theory has only a relative significance: the velocity of light. The velocity of light is to the Theory of Relativity as the elementary quantum of action is to the Quantum Theory: it is its absolute core.” – Max Planck

◦ Planck devised the ‘Planck Constant‘ theory. It’s quite a complicated subject to discuss, but in layman terms, it’s electromagnetic radiation energy in a photon, linked to the frequency of its electromagnetic wave. The theory is energy x time x distance = h, and h = 6.6260693(11) x 10-34 J s

In 1911 both Planck, and Einstein attended the Solvay Conference, in Brussels, where they encouraged other prominent scientists to embrace the quantum theory, and it was also heavily influenced by Niels Bohr‘s ‘Bohr model‘ which was the description of the structure of hydrogen atoms using the quantum hypothesis. This description can be explained by using our solar system as an example. The nucleus is our Sun, and the electrons orbit the nucleus. If energy is applied the electrons can jump to another orbit.

Planck continued to study various fields of physics and physical chemistry, and in 1918 he won the Nobel Peace Prize. He lived in Berlin until his retirement in 1928, and Erwin Schrödinger became his successor at the University of Berlin, and went on to also win a Nobel Peace Prize in Quantum Wave Mechanics. At the time Berlin was perhaps one of the most important and innovative place for theoretical physics, until the fateful day that Adolf Hitler gained power in 1933, and that forced many Jewish scientists to abandon their studies and flee Germany.

“[I do not believe] in a personal God, let alone a Christian God.” – Max Planck

Planck remained defiantly in Germany in an attempt to preserve its physics presence, and he even attempted to convince Hitler to reverse his racial policies. He spent much of his twilight years writing philosophy and questioning religion until his death in 1947 at the age of 89. His legacy lives on, and it’s suggested by scientists that he could perhaps be the most important and influential mind of all time.