Maxwell Ludwig Planck was born in 1858 to a distinguished German family of theologians and lawyers. Like his father and grandfather before him, Planck was quickly drawn to the academic life, but Planck's studies took on a more practical bent. From an early age, he became fascinated with science, and he went on to study physics at the university. Planck soon became an expert in classical physics, concerning himself specifically with the laws of thermodynamics. An unpopular field when he began studying it, thermodynamics soon became a popular area of study, and experts were in high demand. At a young age, Planck was already well known and well respected by his scientific peers.
This would have been good enough for Planck, who never expected to discover anything new as a physicist. In fact, his thesis advisor had warned him away from the field, suggesting that there was nothing new to be learned there. But Planck quickly proved him wrong. At the end of the nineteenth century, Planck turned his attention to a new problem: blackbody radiation. Planck tried for years to derive a formula for the spectral distribution of energy emitted by the blackbody. He found his answer, but only by taking a revolutionary step. Planck made the radical assumption that energy was emitted by the blackbody in discrete energy packets, rather than in a continuous wave. His resulting equation, E = hv, made him famous.
But most physicists, including Planck, were slow to realize the significance of the remarkable formula. Only one, a young patent clerk named Albert Einstein, understood its full implications. Einstein's paper on the blackbody formula posited that light actually came in packets of energy. Before him, everyone had assumed energy was a continuous wave, and even Planck figured his formula was only a mathematical abstraction. Soon Planck's formula and Einstein's paper had spawned a new field, quantum physics. Ironically, both Planck and Einstein were among the biggest critics of the theories of the quantum physicists. When the quantum physics community agreed that light came in neither particles nor waves, but both, depending on how the experiment was constructed, Einstein and Planck agreed that such a suggestion was ludicrous. Nonetheless, the quantum physicists persisted, and their theories soon became accepted–the doubting Planck became known as the father of such a field.
As the years went on, Planck's scientific contributions diminished. However, his prominence in the physics community grew and grew. By 1914, Planck was one of the most well respected German scientists, and when the World War I broke out, his colleagues looked to him for guidance. A staunch German nationalist, Planck was fully behind the war. He believed Germany was engaged in a noble battle and that it was only a matter of time before the rest of the world would have to agree. He was surprised and dismayed when the Germans lost the war and even more dismayed when Germany's neighbors punished the country for its aggression by isolating it in every way possible. Politically, Germany was humiliated by the terms of the Treaty of Versailles; scientifically, Germany was alienated from the international scientific community by the punitive actions of other European scientists.
By the end of World War I, Planck had emerged as the unofficial spokesperson of German science. Desperate to help Germany regain its place on the world stage, Planck attempted to raise the country's fortunes by supporting promising new scientific research. In this way, he was able to both help his colleagues and increase the chances that Germany would make a scientific breakthrough that would stun the world into acceptance of its former enemy.
Unfortunately, as Planck was struggling to get his community back on its feet, his country was falling down around him. Torn apart by war and post-war economic depression, the German people were reeling. Adolf Hitler, the leader of the Nazi party, took advantage of their anger and discontent, coming to power on a platform of nationalism and blame. He blamed the outside world for Germany's problems, and he blamed the Jews. Already an anti-Semitic country, Germany soon completely turned on its Jewish citizens. In the early 1930s, Jews were fired from their jobs and persecuted in the streets. Many of them, fearing what might come next, fled the country.
Among these émigrés were most of the best and brightest of German science. Some were Jews who feared for their livelihood and their lives. Others were not Jews, but nonetheless could no longer stand to live under such hateful policies. Others, like Planck, stayed. Planck disapproved of Hitler's policies but felt that it was his duty as a German and as a scientist to do what he could for what remained of his scientific community and his country.
So Planck stayed put. He advocated for he thought was right when he felt that he could, which was rarely. He tried his best to protect his Jewish colleagues and keep the institutions he was affiliated with out of the hands of the Nazis. But he did so quietly, careful not to rock the boat. He helped many, but he stayed silent while many others were persecuted.
Planck himself did not escape this period unscathed. By the time World War II began, he was in his eighties and retired from public life. But his remaining years would be neither quiet nor peaceful. In the space of a couple years, Planck's house was destroyed and his son was executed. Planck survived the war, but not by much. On October 4, 1947, he died of a stroke.
Perhaps he could have done more to help his beleaguered Jewish colleagues; perhaps, by staying publicly loyal to the German government while working behind the scenes to help whenever he could, he did more than could have been expected of him. Planck's confusing legacy remains a study in contradictions: he is the father of quantum physics who remained appalled by the results he had spawned, and the spokesman for German science best known for his silence.
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