Max Planck (1858 – 1917)
Max Karl Ernst Ludwig Planck was born on April 23, 1858, in the Baltic seaport city of Kiel, Germany. Kiel was then ruled by Denmark. Max was the sixth child of a distinguished professor of law at kiel. Soon, Kiel was freed from Denmark with the German army’s help. His father then joined as professor of Law at the Munich University. Max came from a distinguished and educated family. His relatives had earned name and fame in the fields of law, public services as administrators, and as scientists and preachers among others.
When Max was 9 years old, his father shifted the family from Kiel to Munich as he was appointed professor at the Munich University. Max began his school education at the Maximiliam Gymnasium in Munich. Here, he came in contact with a philosopher and a dedicated professor of physics who inspired and drew him towards physics and mathematics. He was also fond of music. His family would support and encourage him in his musical pursuits. He became a very good pianist and playing piano became a passion of his life time. He would relax playing it after a hard day’s work. He also loved the outdoors, taking long walks each day, hiking and climbing in the mountains during vacations, even when he grew old.
Max’s intellectual capacities were however, brought to a focus as a result of his independent study, especially of Rudolf Clausius’ writings on thermodynamics. It is a systematic study of the relationship between heat, work, temperature and energy. In fact, thermodynamics and the science of light are closely related. Normally, a thermometer is used to measure temperature up to a certain degree and for temperatures above that, it is determined from the spectrum of the substance. An optical pyrometer is used to measure the temperature of a furnace. Heat and light are in fact types of energy. So, Planck extended his study beyond thermodynamics to study light. He faced some theoretical problems in his research on radiation. He researched on the amount of light needed to produce heat. He discovered that very little amount of heat brightens a substance. Every object has some amount of heat due to which it glows. But in reality it does not happen so! All his calculations were correct. Thus, he felt there were certain loopholes in the established laws regarding light. This revolutionary scientist took up the challenge to question and rejects the age-old prevailing principles.
Planck formulated new principles. He put forward the hypothesis that light is a stream of energy and energy emitted in specific amounts or quanta. According to him, different levels contain different amounts of energy. According to planck, the energy associated with a quantum of radiation is proportional to the frequency of radiation, and the constant of proportionality (now called planck’s constant h) is a universal one. Planck’s new theory came to be known as ‘Quantum theory’. Max planck presented his new theory to the German Science Academy in December 1900. Many scientists present at the meeting did not accept the new theory. They had another reason. They found the age-old theory of light-Copscular Theory or particle theory being revoked here. They felt that the wave theory readily explained reflection, refraction, interference and polarization, etc. of light. So, how could the wave theory be dismissed? They were not mentally prepared to accept this.
Planck was a man of strong spirit and will power. If he had been less tolerant, less philosophical and had even lesser religious belief, he probably could not have succeeded in overcoming the tragedies that marred his life after his 50’s. In 1909, his first wife, Marie Merck, daughter of a Munich banker, died after 22 years of happy marriage, leaving Planck with two sons and twin daughters. He married again and had three children from the second marriage. He lost his elder son Karl in action in 1916 during World War I. The following year, Margarete, one of his daughters, died in childbirth, and in 1919 the same fate befell Emma, his second daughter. The terror unleashed by the Nazis compelled his two dear friends Albert Einstein and Erwin Schrodinger to leave Germany for good. He was to face further tragedy with the advent of World War II. The house in Berlin where he lived was totally destroyed be bombs in 1944.
Germany suffered a massive defeat at the hands of the allied forces. A new and strong German nation emerged as the Nazi regime came to an end. Nazism lost its grip over the psyche of the people. New German administrators organized a grand function to celebrate the 90th birthday of this great scientist. Unfortunately, he passed away on October 4, 1947, a few months before the big day. The Kaiser Wilhelm Academy of Science was renamed Max Planck Academy of Science in honour of this great man. Moreover, the German medal for foremost research called Max planck medal is awarded every year in his honour.