Max Planck

Max Planck

Max Planck, the son of a professor of law, was born in Kiel, Germany, on 23rd April, 1858. He studied physics at the University of Munich (1874-1877) and the University of Berlin (1877-78) before receiving his doctorate in 1879.

He taught at the University of Munich before being appointed associate professor at the University of Kiel. Planck researched into the manner in which heated bodies radiate energy led him to argue that energy is emitted only in indivisible amounts, called "quanta", the magnitudes of which are proportional to the frequency of the radiation.

Planck's theories were in conflict with classical physics and his work is said to have marked the commencement of modern science. Albert Einstein used Planck's quantum theory to explain photoelectricity and Niels Bohr successfully applied the quantum theory to the atom. In 1918 Planck was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics.

In 1930 he was appointed as president of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in 1930. An opponent of Adolf Hitler, Planck resigned his position in 1937 in protest against the decision by Bernard Rust, the minister of education, to sack Jewish teachers from Germany's universities.

Planck refused to work on any of Germany's war research projects. In 1944 Planck's youngest son, Erwin Planck was arrested and charged with involvement in the July Plot against Adolf Hitler. He was killed while being tortured by the Gestapo in 1945. Max Planck died on 4th October, 1947.

Primary Sources

(1) Albert Einstein, was in Germany in 1922 when the Jewish politician Walther Rathenau was assassinated. He wrote a letter to Max Planck describing his fears about his own safety.

A number of people who deserve to be taken seriously have independently warned me not to stay in Berlin for the time being and, especially, to avoid all public appearances in Germany. I am said to be among those whom the nationalists have marked for assassination. Of course, I have no proof, but in the prevailing situation it seems quite plausible.

The trouble is that the newspapers have mentioned my name too often, this mobilizing the rabble against me. I have no alternative but to be patient - and to leave the city. I do urge you to get as little upset over the incident as I myself.

(2) Max Planck, Scientific Autobiography (1949)

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 familiarized with the ideas from the beginning.

Last updated: 15th June, 2001