Max Planck (1858-1947) was a famous physicist from Germany, the first to postulate what is now known as quantum theory, for which he won the Nobel Prize. Planck’s career began before that of Albert Einstein, whose name is more recognized in popular culture today, but unlike Einstein (who was Jewish) he remained in Nazi Germany throughout the Second World War.
– Early Life –
Max was born in Kiel, Germany, to a family of academics: his father was a professor of law, and his grandfather a theologian. At the time of his childhood, the German states had not yet been unified under the Prussian throne; thus Planck is technically from Holstein rather than Germany proper. As he grew up, the family moved to the metropolis of Munich, where he was educated in mathematics and physics by such noted figures as Hermann Muller.
After graduating from school, Planck chose to stay in Munich and attend the University of Munich, studying physics – where, in a fit of incredibly poor foresight, a professor allegedly remarked to him that the field of physics had largely been played out and that students wishing to make new discoveries should get a degree in some other branch of science instead. Undeterred, Planck studied under this same cynical professor – Philipp Jolly – and then under Hermann von Helmotz, Gustaf Krichhoff, and Karl Weierstrass. The latter trio persuaded him to move from the experimental physics of his early undergraduate career to the far more complicated realm of theoretical physics, where, it was to be hoped, discoveries were still possible.
– Academic Career –
After several years working as a private tutor, Planck was able to gain a succession of university appointments as professor of physics, first at the University of Kiel (his family home) and then at the far more prestigious University of Berlin. It was here that he would perform his most significant work.
Many of Planck’s early studies seemed to be of modest importance, such as work on black-body radiation – which, curiously enough for its later importance, grew out of a private contract to improve the efficiency of light bulbs. In 1900, on the basis of several groundbreaking discoveries, Planck advanced a new claim that energy existed subject to a new set of mathematical principles called quantum mechanics, rather than the classical mechanics put forward by Sir Isaac Newton.
Planck’s success in founding the school of quantum mechanics immediately made him one of the most prominent intellectuals in Germany. Throughout his life, however, he seems to have been genuinely ambivalent over the extent to which the new theory should be used to overturn classical physics.
– Last Years in Nazi Germany –
Alongside being hesitant to foment radical change in the study of science, Planck was generally averse to rapid change in other areas of society as well – indeed, he was what at the time was considered quite conservative. After Germany’s defeat in the First World War and the creation of the fragile but democratic Weimar Republic, Planck denounced the advent of universal adult suffrage (giving the vote to all people); later, after the rise of the Nazi Party, he would blame the success of the obsessively populist Nazis on the foolishness of the masses.
Planck thus did not particularly like the Nazis, but was not sufficiently averse to them that he decided to leave – quite the contrary, as a Protestant, he could afford to keep his job, and he chose to. Thus he remained in his position while a wave of prominent Jewish intellectuals (one of which was Einstein) fled for the relative freedom offered farther west, especially in America, where Jews were generally not well-liked at the time (anti-Semitism still being a common prejudice) but were certainly tolerated and permitted to live in freedom.
Eventually Planck’s stolid refusal to take political positions did begin to get the better of him. Prior to the Second World War, he briefly came under government suspicion for refusing to join many of his fellow physicists in denouncing Einstein’s theory of relativity – it had, after all, been written by a Jewish intellectual. During the war itself, while Planck remained outside of the membership of the Nazi Party, his son came under suspicion of participation in the failed 1944 conspiracy to assassinate Hitler, and was executed as a suspected traitor. Planck himself survived the war, before dying in 1947 at the extreme old age of 89.