Max von Laue was born as Max Laue in 1879 to Julius Laue and Minna Zerrenner. His father was later raised to hereditary nobility, for which the ‘von’ was added. The father was a German military administrator, thus the family moved frequently during von Laue’s childhood. A professor in Strasbourg interested him in the sciences, and he eventually studied at the University of Strasbourg. Over the following five years, von Laue studied in Göttingen, Munich and Berlin, where he worked with Max Planck and received his doctorate.
Von Laue then spent several more years working as an assistant to Planck in Berlin, where he first made the acquaintance of Albert Einstein. Von Laue then became a Privatdozent at the University of Munich in 1909 where he did much important work. Privatdozent is a position in German academia that allows teaching at the university level but is not salaried. Sometimes it requires habilitation—a research and publication process more rigorous than researching for a doctorate. At Munich, von Laue taught optics, thermodynamics and the theory of relativity. He then taught at several other universities and worked on the development of vacuum tubes for communications in WWI.
In 1917, von Laue was made the Second Director of the Institute of Physics in Berlin, where Einstein was the Director. He moved with the institute to Hechingen when Berlin was bombed during WWII. He stayed there until 1945, when an English and American delegation came to escort German scientists suspected of working on nuclear weapons to England.
The work for which von Laue is best known and for which he received the Nobel Prize in Physics was done while he was in Munich. While walking through a garden, von Laue and an associate were discussing the passage of light waves through crystal. It occurred to von Laue that a ray of short electromagnetic wavelength, as x-rays were thought to be, would diffract in a particular and calculable way. Several scientists at the university tested von Laue’s idea and eventually proved him right, and he later worked out the mathematical formula. This proved that x-rays are electromagnetic waves and was the beginning of the science of x-ray crystallography.
In x-ray crystallography, an x-ray is shone through a crystal and a piece of film is placed in one of several positions to capture a trace of the diffracted ray. The traces on the film can be used to determine some aspects of the structure of the crystal. The film traces show imperfections in crystals used for things like photovoltaic cells. This is important, as crystal imperfections may greatly reduce the efficiency of the cell. It is also used to detect imperfections in diamonds used in industry and by mineralogists to determine crystal structure.
Max von Laue was strongly anti-Nazi. He was outspoken in his support for Einstein and his theory of relativity and opposed to the Nazi-driven Deutsche Physik, or German Physics. Von Laue also organized a commemoration of the death of a Jewish-born chemist who had been forced into exile and later died abroad. It was attended almost exclusively by the wives of professors, as the government had forbidden professors in the civil service to attend.
Von Laue was fond of outdoor activities, such as sailing, skiing and walking Switzerland’s Alpine glaciers with his friends. He was also an ardent motorist and fond of driving fast. As a young man, he had a motor bicycle on which he would speed to his lectures. When he was older, he enjoyed driving his motorcar and, until his death, never had an accident. In 1960, when von Laue was 80 years old, he was driving his motorcar in Berlin when a motorcyclist hit him. The young motorcyclist, who supposedly had only received his license two days before, was killed instantly and von Laue’s car was overturned. He survived the crash, but died of his injuries several weeks later.