Max Planck at 150

Nieuws | de redactie
2 juli 2008 | 150 years ago, Max Planck was born. The founding father of modern physics, he conceptualized quantum mechanics, which was further developed by successors like Einstein and Heisenberg.

According to physicist Robbert Dijkgraaf, President of the DutchRoyal Academy of Sciences (KNAW), Planck gave the kick-off for the’revolution of physics’. “Apart from publishing his quantum theoryin 1900, he launched this whole adventure in which we have learnedhow all matter on earth is made.Thanks to Planck’s work, we havepenetrated into the heart of ‘matter’. Charmingly, Planck’sdiscoveries fundamentally ran counter his intuition. For not onlyin his social and political views, but also academically Planck wasa conservative. However, he reviewed and changed the laws ofphysics in order to understand the phenomena in nature,because hesimply felt he had to”.


“Quantum mechanics is something no philosopher would ever comeup with,” Dijkgraaf observes. “Human nature is almost designednot to grasp quantum mechanics! For humans, it is socounter-intuitive that we are not an integral being, but just theadd-up of particles, atoms, small stuff. ‘Quanta’, therefore.

The generation of physicists after Planck brought his theory tofull bloom. Only now, a century later, are we able to see itstheoretical elements with our own eyes in a laboratory. We cannotonly envisage what quantum mechanics is, we can manipulate matteron the level of some atoms. Just think of the hugebreakthroughs in nanotechnology.

So it is no longer something far off the charts of thinking,something incredibly hard to understand. Quantum mechanics has comedown to earth in a certain fashion. Like in the old days, thescientist has become a designer. The mysteries of quantum mechanicshave largely disappeared because of the technological developmentsof the past century.”


Apart from being a researcher, Planck played a key role inGerman and European history. The story of his life became a symbolof the tragic history of his Heimat in the 20thcentury. One of millions to die in the trenches of the Great War,his eldest son Karl fell during the siege of Verdun in 1916. Inthose same years, both his daughters died whilst delivering achild.

From 1912 to 1938, Max Planck served as secretary- general of thePrussian Academy of Sciences. Between 1930 and 1937, he waspresident of the leading German research institute, the KaiserWilhelm Gesellschaft. During the Nazi era, Planck protectedscientists who had to fear for their lives and tried to convinceGerman society of the enmity to truth of Nazi ideology.

An aged conservative, he did this inconspicuously atfirst. From 1934-35, Planck attracted great crowds in hispublic lectures on modern science. Addressing the pretense of totalpower of the Nazis and their racial theories, Planck stressed theimportance of Christian values and menschlicher Anstand -human decency – as a contrast. His motto became Hin zu Gott- towards God.

In taking this direction, his youngest son was his most importantpartner. A top civil servant, Erwin Planck had taken charge of theReichs-Chancellery in 1932. He witnessed how the Weimar Republicslid into authoritarian government and then into dictatorship.Although closely observed by the Gestapo, Erwin Planck did what hecould to prevent war, even working together with Ernst vonWeizsäcker, Junior Minister for Foreign Affairs under Joachim vonRibbentrop, and father of the later president of the FederalRepublic.

During foreign travels as advisor and negotiator forindustrial firms, Erwin Planck warned politicians and governmentsof neighbouring about Hitler’s intentions. His mission was notquite successful: supplying Stalins regime in Moscow with secretinformation about the Nazi threat, he was not believed.

After the coup d’état and failed assassination of Hitler on July20, 1944, he was arrested because of his links to the conspirators.His 87-year old father wrote heartrending letters to Hitler andHimmler to plead for mercy, apparently supposing that the dictatorwould be responsive while Allied forces were conquering Germanterritory. In a show trial, Erwin Planck was sentenced to death. Ittook one hour. He was executed on January 23 in1945.

Remembering Newton

May 1945, Max Planck was liberated by three American soldiers.One of them was the Dutch astronomer Gerard P. Kuiper, now famousfor his ‘belt’ in space. They immediately took him to friends inGöttingen, the university town, knowing that the village wherePlanck used to be quartered would be part of the Soviet-occupationzone, later to become the GDR of Ulbricht and Honecker.

Shortly after the war, there was a delayed celebration of thebirth of Newton, 300 years earlier, in London. Dijkgraafrecounts Planck’s role there: “From all over the world, thegreat physicists were gathered to honor Newtons remembrance, butfrom Germany only Max Planck was invited. At the ball, everyone wasintroduced whereby their country was mentioned. Germany,however, was occupied and dissolved. Therefore, he was announced as’Max Planck, stateless’. As this led to buzz and hisses in thehall, he was reintroduced as ‘Max Planck, on behalf of the world ofscience’. To me, that is a deeply moving moment. It shows thelonely stature of a great scientist and outstanding humanbeing”.

In order to prevent the dissolution of the Kaiser-WilhelmGesellschaft by the Allied occupation powers in 1945, Max Planckwas elected again to the presidency of the research institute.After its reestablishment in 1946, Max Planck was appointedhonorary president. The Kaiser- Wilhelm Gesellschaft was renamedthe ‘Max Planck Gesellschaft’ after his death in 1947.

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