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Max Planck

The Early Years

Important Terms, People, and Events

The Black Box

Maxwell Ludwig Planck was born in 1858 to a distinguished German family, the latest in a long line of academics and intellectuals. Planck's great grandfather, Gottlieb Jakob Planck, was a professor of theology at the famed University of Göttingen, and his son followed suit. Maxwell's father, Wilhelm Julius Planck, gravitated toward less ethereal pursuits than his forebears: Wilhelm became a professor of law.

In 1858, Wilhelm's sixth child was born: Maxwell. This Planck was also destined to enter the academic world and to excel there, though this was not always evident in his youth. According to his school records, Planck did well academically, but he was never the best. Though he was good at everything, he excelled at nothing. In fact, his teachers were less impressed with his academic performance than they were with his personality: even in his youth Planck was admired as an upstanding young man, beloved by both teachers and students.

But Planck eventually discovered a subject in which he did excel and, more importantly, a subject that he loved: physics. He uncovered his intereste in physics at the gymnasium, or secondary school, thanks to the prompting of a teacher named Herman Müller. Müller encouraged Planck to take a holistic view of physics, to appreciate the beauty of the mathematically complex natural world.

Planck continued his studies at the University of Munich, where he enjoyed his work but didn't believe that he had any great aptitude for the discipline. His professors certainly didn't helpm and, at one point, his thesis advisor warned him to choose a different field of study, as all the important discoveries in physics had already been made. But Planck persevered, claiming that he didn't care if he made an important discovery–he cared less about making a name for himself and more about understanding the fundamental workings of the universe.

Most of all in these early days, Planck wanted to understand the fundamental laws of thermodynamics: the conservation of energy and entropy. Planck chose these laws for his dissertation. Planck believed that all physical processes could somehow be traced back to the laws of thermodynamics, and he was convinced that the keys to understanding these processes lay in entropy.

In 1879, when he wrote his dissertation, few other physicists cared about entropy, and the dissertation was largely overlooked. However, over the next decade, thermodynamics became increasingly more popular, and as demand for information on the subject grew, so did Planck's reputation.

This was only the beginning for Planck. In 1892, although he had yet to produce any particularly remarkable work, Planck was hired as a full professor at the prestigious University of Berlin. In 1894, he was made a member of the Berlin Academy of Sciences. Throughout, he worked diligently at deciphering the mysteries of classical thermodynamics and, by 1897, he was the world's leading authority on the subject.

But Planck's interest in classical physics was about to lead him to what would prove to be the most challenging and most rewarding puzzle of his scientific career: the problem of blackbody radiation. His eventual solution to this problem would force him to challenge and destroy his devotion to classical physics itself. But at the end of the nineteenth century, when Planck turned his attention to the popular problem of blackbody radiation, he had no idea that intellectual transformation and international acclaim were to follow. He knew only that he'd encountered yet another physical puzzle that he was determined to understand, no matter what.

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