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Graves from Göttingen: Max Planck

You should know the name of Max Planck. Not only does he have a German research institution chain named after him, he also completely revolutionized physics around the turn of the last century. His work with thermodynamic problems, such as blackbody radiation and a phenomenon known as the ultraviolet catastrophe, led him to develop his quantum theory. This completely changed the field of physics and led to such advancements as the atomic bomb and nuclear power.

Quantum theory was Planck’s solution to an old problem in classical thermodynamics. Classical thermodynamics theorized that when a “blackbody,” an object capable of producing infinite amounts of radiation, was superheated, the frequency of light it emitted would increase in direct proportion to the heat. This problem was given the dramatic name “ultraviolet catastrophe” because it seemed that an infinite amount of energy would be emitted. However, experimental evidence shows that there is a peak in blackbody radiation and the universe is safe from such a catastrophe.

Planck theorized that the energy must travel in discrete parcels, which he called quanta, singular “quantum.” As the heat of a black body increases, Plank posited that the sizes of the quanta increase to the point that only a few can be excited at a time, thus saving the world from catastrophe. Planck presented his findings to the Berlin Physical Society in Dec. 1900, changing physics forever. It was for this discovery of energy quanta that he received the Nobel Prize in 1918.

Another result of Planck’s theory was the end of classical physics and the consequent beginning of modern physics. Thus, it can be said that Planck’s contributions to physics led directly to the theories of Einstein and many other fabulous, wonderful and revolutionary discoveries. Some of these discoveries led to such inventions as the atomic bomb and nuclear power and developed an understanding of such phenomena as nuclear decay.

Despite his scientifically prolific life, Planck came from inauspicious origins. Max Karl Ernst Ludwig Planck was born to a German constitutional law professor and his wife in Kiel, Germany. He was a very good student and graduated early from high school. Music was perhaps his biggest talent when he was young, as he composed, sang and played piano and organ. It was his high school mathematics teacher who brought about his interest in physics. He went on to study theoretical physics, despite being told by a professor that there really wasn’t anything left to discover.

Planck lived for much of his adult life in Berlin, teaching at the Berlin University. He lived near other physicists and his first wife’s apartment, where he lived, became a center for discussions and a great deal of music-making.  Planck helped Einstein become respected, and the two of them formed a lasting friendship, possibly helped by their mutual love for music. Planck first married a childhood friend, Marie Merck and had four children with her. After she died, he married her cousin Marga von Hösslin and had another son. Both his daughters died in childbirth; both were married to the same man, although not at the same time.

Planck was staunchly anti-Nazi, and spoke out vociferously against their policies concerning the Jews. As president of the Kaiser-Wilhelm Institute (now the Max Planck Institute), he allowed Jews to secretly continue working for Kaiser-Wilhelm institutions and even held a controversial commemorative meeting for the exiled Fritz Haber.

The World Wars and his fight with the Nazi regime brought him much sadness as one of his sons was killed at Verdun, his youngest son was killed by the Gestapo for involvement with the July 20 plot to assassinate Hitler, and his house in Berlin was bombed. He, his wife, and his final son moved to Göttingen, where Planck’s father had once taught. He died there in 1947.