LOT Photos Estate Nobel Laureate Max Planck Granddaughter QUANTUM PHYSICS SCARCE (2023)

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LOT Photos Estate Nobel Laureate Max Planck Granddaughter QUANTUM PHYSICS SCARCE:

Original Foto Nachlass von dem Nobelpreisträger Max Planck und seiner EnkeltochterGrete Marie Fehling

Diverse Fotos / Postkarten und 2 Fotoalben der Enkeltochter

Original photo estate of the Nobel Prize winner Max Planck and his granddaughter Grete Marie Fehling

Various photos / postcards and 2 photo albums of the granddaughter

Grete Marie Emma Cäcilie Roos (Fehling)

Birthdate:May 06, 1917

Birthplace:Heidelberg, Landkreis Karlsruhe, BW, Germany

Death:1981 (63-64)

Immediate Family:

Daughter of Ferdinand Fehling and Emma Ottilie Agnes Fehling

Wife of Ernst Johannes Roos

Emma Ottilie Agnes Fehling (Planck)

Birthdate:April 10, 1889

Birthplace:Berlin, Berlin, Germany

Death:May 15, 1917 (28)

Thomasstraße 15, Berlin-Charlottenburg, Berlin, Germany (childbirth)

Immediate Family:

Daughter of Max K. E. L. Planck, Nobel Prize in Physics, 1918 and Marie Planck (Merck)

Wife of Ferdinand Fehling

Mother of Grete Marie Emma Cäcilie Roos

Sister of Karl Planck and Erwin Gottlieb Adalbert Otto Planck

Half sister of Hermann Heinrich Wilhelm Planck

Max Karl Ernst Ludwig Planck

Birthdate:April 23, 1858

Birthplace:Kiel, Schleswig-Holstein, Germany

Death:October 04, 1947 (89)

Göttingen, Lower Saxony, Germany

Place of Burial:Göttingen City Cemetery, Göttingen, Germany

Immediate Family:

Son of Johann Julius Wilhelm* von Planck and Emma Planck (Patzig)

Husband of Marie Planck (Merck) and Margarethe Marga von Hößlin

Father of Karl Planck; Emma Ottilie Agnes Fehling; Erwin Gottlieb Adalbert Otto Planck and Hermann Heinrich Wilhelm Planck

Brother of Adalbert Friedrich August Wilhelm Planck; Hildegard Brandis; Otto Planck and Hermann Planck

Half brother of Emma Schirmer and Hugo Wilhelm Sigmund Allwill Planck

Max Karl Ernst Ludwig Planck ForMemRS[1] (English: /ˈplæŋk/,[2] German: [maks ˈplaŋk] (listen);[3] 23 April 1858 – 4 October 1947) was a German theoretical physicist whose discovery of energy quanta won him the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1918.[4]

Planck made many substantial contributions to theoretical physics, but his fame as a physicist rests primarily on his role as the originator of quantum theory,[5] which revolutionized human understanding of atomic and subatomic processes. In 1948, the German scientific institution Kaiser Wilhelm Society (of which Planck was twice president) was renamed Max Planck Society (MPG). The MPG now includes 83 institutions representing a wide range of scientific directions.

Life and career

Planck came from a traditional, intellectual family. His paternal great-grandfather and grandfather were both theology professors in Göttingen; his father was a law professor at the University of Kiel and Munich. One of his uncles was also a judge.[6]

Max Planck's signature at ten years of age

Planck was born in 1858 in Kiel, Holstein, to Johann Julius Wilhelm Planck and his second wife, Emma Patzig. He was baptized with the name of Karl Ernst Ludwig Marx Planck; of his given names, Marx (a now obsolete variant of Markus or maybe simply an error for Max, which is actually short for Maximilian) was indicated as the "appellation name".[7] However, by the age of ten he signed with the name Max and used this for the rest of his life.[8]

He was the sixth child in the family, though two of his siblings were from his father's first marriage. War was common during Planck's early years and among his earliest memories was the marching of Prussian and Austrian troops into Kiel during the Second Schleswig War in 1864.[6] In 1867 the family moved to Munich, and Planck enrolled in the Maximilians gymnasium school, where he came under the tutelage of Hermann Müller, a mathematician who took an interest in the youth, and taught him astronomy and mechanics as well as mathematics. It was from Müller that Planck first learned the principle of conservation of energy. Planck graduated early, at age 17.[9] This is how Planck first came in contact with the field of physics.

Planck was gifted when it came to music. He took singing lessons and played piano, organ and cello, and composed songs and operas. However, instead of music he chose to study physics.

A side portrait of Planck as a young adult, c. 1878

The Munich physics professor Philipp von Jolly advised Planck against going into physics, saying, "In this field, almost everything is already discovered, and all that remains is to fill a few holes."[10] Planck replied that he did not wish to discover new things, but only to understand the known fundamentals of the field, and so began his studies in 1874 at the University of Munich. Under Jolly's supervision, Planck performed the only experiments of his scientific career, studying the diffusion of hydrogen through heated platinum, but transferred to theoretical physics.

In 1877, he went to the Friedrich Wilhelms University in Berlin for a year of study with physicists Hermann von Helmholtz and Gustav Kirchhoff and mathematician Karl Weierstrass. He wrote that Helmholtz was never quite prepared, spoke slowly, miscalculated endlessly, and bored his listeners, while Kirchhoff spoke in carefully prepared lectures which were dry and monotonous. He soon became close friends with Helmholtz. While there he undertook a program of mostly self-study of Clausius's writings, which led him to choose thermodynamics as his field.

In October 1878, Planck passed his qualifying exams and in February 1879 defended his dissertation Über den zweiten Hauptsatz der mechanischen Wärmetheorie (On the Second Law of Mechanical Heat Theory). He briefly taught mathematics and physics at his former school in Munich.

By the year 1880, Planck had obtained the two highest academic degrees offered in Europe. The first was a doctorate degree after he completed his paper detailing his research and theory of thermodynamics.[6] He then presented his thesis called Gleichgewichtszustände isotroper Körper in verschiedenen Temperaturen (Equilibrium states of isotropic bodies at different temperatures), which earned him a habilitation.

Academic career

With the completion of his habilitation thesis, Planck became an unpaid Privatdozent (German academic rank comparable to lecturer/assistant professor) in Munich, waiting until he was offered an academic position. Although he was initially ignored by the academic community, he furthered his work on the field of heat theory and discovered one after another the same thermodynamical formalism as Gibbs without realizing it. Clausius's ideas on entropy occupied a central role in his work.

In April 1885, the University of Kiel appointed Planck as associate professor of theoretical physics. Further work on entropy and its treatment, especially as applied in physical chemistry, followed. He published his Treatise on Thermodynamics in 1897.[11] He proposed a thermodynamic basis for Svante Arrhenius's theory of electrolytic dissociation.

In 1889, he was named the successor to Kirchhoff's position at the Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität in Berlin[12] – presumably thanks to Helmholtz's intercession – and by 1892 became a full professor. In 1907 Planck was offered Boltzmann's position in Vienna, but turned it down to stay in Berlin. During 1909, as a University of Berlin professor, he was invited to become the Ernest Kempton Adams Lecturer in Theoretical Physics at Columbia University in New York City. A series of his lectures were translated and co-published by Columbia University professor A. P. Wills.[13] He retired from Berlin on 10 January 1926,[14] and was succeeded by Erwin Schrödinger.[15]


In March 1887, Planck married Marie Merck (1861–1909), sister of a school fellow, and moved with her into a sublet apartment in Kiel. They had four children: Karl (1888–1916), the twins Emma (1889–1919) and Grete (1889–1917), and Erwin (1893–1945).

After the apartment in Berlin, the Planck family lived in a villa in Berlin-Grunewald, Wangenheimstrasse 21. Several other professors from University of Berlin lived nearby, among them theologian Adolf von Harnack, who became a close friend of Planck. Soon the Planck home became a social and cultural center. Numerous well-known scientists, such as Albert Einstein, Otto Hahn and Lise Meitner were frequent visitors. The tradition of jointly performing music had already been established in the home of Helmholtz.

After several happy years, in July 1909 Marie Planck died, possibly from tuberculosis. In March 1911 Planck married his second wife, Marga von Hoesslin (1882–1948); in December his fifth child Hermann was born.

During the First World War Planck's second son Erwin was taken prisoner by the French in 1914, while his oldest son Karl was killed in action at Verdun. Grete died in 1917 while giving birth to her first child. Her sister died the same way two years later, after having married Grete's widower. Both granddaughters survived and were named after their mothers. Planck endured these losses stoically.

In January 1945, Erwin, to whom he had been particularly close, was sentenced to death by the Nazi Volksgerichtshof because of his participation in the failed attempt to assassinate Hitler in July 1944. Erwin was executed on 23 January 1945.[16]

Professor at Berlin University

As a professor at the Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität in Berlin, Planck joined the local Physical Society. He later wrote about this time: "In those days I was essentially the only theoretical physicist there, whence things were not so easy for me, because I started mentioning entropy, but this was not quite fashionable, since it was regarded as a mathematical spook".[17] Thanks to his initiative, the various local Physical Societies of Germany merged in 1898 to form the German Physical Society (Deutsche Physikalische Gesellschaft, DPG); from 1905 to 1909 Planck was the president.

Plaque at the Humboldt University of Berlin: "Max Planck, discoverer of the elementary quantum of action h, taught in this building from 1889 to 1928."

Planck started a six-semester course of lectures on theoretical physics, "dry, somewhat impersonal" according to Lise Meitner, "using no notes, never making mistakes, never faltering; the best lecturer I ever heard" according to an English participant, James R. Partington, who continues: "There were always many standing around the room. As the lecture-room was well heated and rather close, some of the listeners would from time to time drop to the floor, but this did not disturb the lecture." Planck did not establish an actual "school"; the number of his graduate students was only about 20, among them:

1897 Max Abraham (1875–1922)

1903 Max von Laue (1879–1960)

1904 Moritz Schlick (1882–1936)

1906 Walther Meissner (1882–1974)

1907 Fritz Reiche (1883–1960)

1912 Walter Schottky (1886–1976)

1914 Walther Bothe (1891–1957)[18]

Black-body radiation

In 1894, Planck turned his attention to the problem of black-body radiation. The problem had been stated by Kirchhoff in 1859: "how does the intensity of the electromagnetic radiation emitted by a black body (a perfect absorber, also known as a cavity radiator) depend on the frequency of the radiation (i.e., the color of the light) and the temperature of the body?". The question had been explored experimentally, but no theoretical treatment agreed with experimental values (i.e., with experimentally observed evidence). Wilhelm Wien proposed Wien's law, which correctly predicted the behaviour at high frequencies, but failed at low frequencies. The Rayleigh–Jeans law, another approach to the problem, agreed with experimental results at low frequencies, but created what was later known as the "ultraviolet catastrophe" at high frequencies, as predicted by classical physics. However, contrary to many textbooks, this was not a motivation for Planck.[19]

Planck's first proposed solution to the problem in 1899 followed from what he called the "principle of elementary disorder", which allowed him to derive Wien's law from a number of assumptions about the entropy of an ideal oscillator, creating what was referred to as the Wien–Planck law. Soon, however, it was found that experimental evidence did not confirm the new law at all, to Planck's frustration. He revised his approach and now derived the first version of the famous Planck black-body radiation law, which described clearly the experimentally observed black-body spectrum. It was first proposed in a meeting of the DPG on 19 October 1900 and published in 1901. (This first derivation did not include energy quantisation, and did not use statistical mechanics, to which he held an aversion.) In November 1900 Planck revised this first version, now relying on Boltzmann's statistical interpretation of the second law of thermodynamics as a way of gaining a more fundamental understanding of the principles behind his radiation law. Planck was deeply suspicious of the philosophical and physical implications of such an interpretation of Boltzmann's approach; thus his recourse to them was, as he later put it, "an act of despair ... I was ready to sacrifice any of my previous convictions about physics".[19]

The central assumption behind his new derivation, presented to the DPG on 14 December 1900, was the supposition, now known as the Planck postulate, that electromagnetic energy could be emitted only in quantized form, in other words, the energy could only be a multiple of an elementary unit:



where h is Planck's constant, also known as Planck's action quantum (introduced already in 1899), and ν is the frequency of the radiation. Note that the elementary units of energy discussed here are represented by hν and not simply by ν. Physicists now call these quanta photons, and a photon of frequency ν will have its own specific and unique energy. The total energy at that frequency is then equal to hν multiplied by the number of photons at that frequency.

Planck in 1918, the year he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for his work on quantum theory

At first Planck considered that quantisation was only "a purely formal assumption ... actually I did not think much about it ..."; nowadays this assumption, incompatible with classical physics, is regarded as the birth of quantum physics and the greatest intellectual accomplishment of Planck's career. (Ludwig Boltzmann had been discussing in a theoretical paper in 1877 the possibility that the energy states of a physical system could be discrete). The discovery of Planck's constant enabled him to define a new universal set of physical units (such as the Planck length and the Planck mass), all based on fundamental physical constants upon which much of quantum theory is based. In recognition of Planck's fundamental contribution to a new branch of physics, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for 1918; (he actually received the award in 1919).[20][21]

Subsequently, Planck tried to grasp the meaning of energy quanta, but to no avail. "My unavailing attempts to somehow reintegrate the action quantum into classical theory extended over several years and caused me much trouble." Even several years later, other physicists like Rayleigh, Jeans, and Lorentz set Planck's constant to zero in order to align with classical physics, but Planck knew well that this constant had a precise nonzero value. "I am unable to understand Jeans' stubbornness – he is an example of a theoretician as should never be existing, the same as Hegel was for philosophy. So much the worse for the facts if they don't fit."[22]

Max Born wrote about Planck: "He was, by nature, a conservative mind; he had nothing of the revolutionary and was thoroughly skeptical about speculations. Yet his belief in the compelling force of logical reasoning from facts was so strong that he did not flinch from announcing the most revolutionary idea which ever has shaken physics."[1]

Einstein and the theory of relativity

In 1905, the three epochal papers by Albert Einstein were published in the journal Annalen der Physik. Planck was among the few who immediately recognized the significance of the special theory of relativity. Thanks to his influence, this theory was soon widely accepted in Germany. Planck also contributed considerably to extend the special theory of relativity. For example, he recast the theory in terms of classical action.[23]

Einstein's hypothesis of light quanta (photons), based on Heinrich Hertz's 1887 discovery (and further investigation by Philipp Lenard) of the photoelectric effect, was initially rejected by Planck. He was unwilling to discard completely Maxwell's theory of electrodynamics. "The theory of light would be thrown back not by decades, but by centuries, into the age when Christiaan Huygens dared to fight against the mighty emission theory of Isaac Newton ..."[24]

In 1910, Einstein pointed out the anomalous behavior of specific heat at low temperatures as another example of a phenomenon which defies explanation by classical physics. Planck and Nernst, seeking to clarify the increasing number of contradictions, organized the First Solvay Conference (Brussels 1911). At this meeting Einstein was able to convince Planck.

Meanwhile, Planck had been appointed dean of Berlin University, whereby it was possible for him to call Einstein to Berlin and establish a new professorship for him (1914). Soon the two scientists became close friends and met frequently to play music together.

First World War

Max Planck's marble bust at the Deutsches Museum in Munich

At the onset of the First World War Planck endorsed the general excitement of the public, writing that, "Besides much that is horrible, there is also much that is unexpectedly great and beautiful: the smooth solution of the most difficult domestic political problems by the unification of all parties (and) ... the extolling of everything good and noble."[25][26] Planck also signed the infamous "Manifesto of the 93 intellectuals", a pamphlet of polemic war propaganda (while Einstein retained a strictly pacifistic attitude which almost led to his imprisonment, only being spared thanks to his Swiss citizenship).

In 1915, when Italy was still a neutral power, Planck voted successfully for a scientific paper from Italy, which received a prize from the Prussian Academy of Sciences, where Planck was one of four permanent presidents.

Post-war and the Weimar Republic

In the turbulent post-war years, Planck, now the highest authority of German physics, issued the slogan "persevere and continue working" to his colleagues.

In October 1920, he and Fritz Haber established the Notgemeinschaft der Deutschen Wissenschaft (Emergency Organization of German Science), aimed at providing financial support for scientific research. A considerable portion of the money the organization would distribute was raised abroad.

Planck also held leading positions at Berlin University, the Prussian Academy of Sciences, the German Physical Society and the Kaiser Wilhelm Society (which became the Max Planck Society in 1948). During this time economic conditions in Germany were such that he was hardly able to conduct research. In 1926, Planck became a foreign member of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences.[27]

During the interwar period, Planck became a member of the Deutsche Volks-Partei (German People's Party), the party of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Gustav Stresemann, which aspired to liberal aims for domestic policy and rather revisionistic aims for politics around the world.

Planck disagreed with the introduction of universal suffrage and later expressed the view that the Nazi dictatorship resulted from "the ascent of the rule of the crowds".[28]

Quantum mechanics

From left to right: W. Nernst, A. Einstein, Planck, R.A. Millikan and von Laue at a dinner given by von Laue in Berlin on 11 November 1931

At the end of the 1920s, Bohr, Heisenberg and Pauli had worked out the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics, but it was rejected by Planck, and by Schrödinger, Laue, and Einstein as well. Planck expected that wave mechanics would soon render quantum theory – his own child – unnecessary. This was not to be the case, however. Further work only served to underscore the enduring central importance of quantum theory, even against his and Einstein's philosophical revulsions. Here Planck experienced the truth of his own earlier observation from his struggle with the older views during his younger years: "A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it."[29]

Nazi dictatorship and the Second World War

When the Nazis came to power in 1933, Planck was 74 years old. He witnessed many Jewish friends and colleagues expelled from their positions and humiliated, and hundreds of scientists emigrate from Nazi Germany. Again he tried to "persevere and continue working" and asked scientists who were considering emigration to remain in Germany. Nevertheless, he did help his nephew, the economist Hermann Kranold, to emigrate to London after his arrest.[30] He hoped the crisis would abate soon and the political situation would improve.

Otto Hahn asked Planck to gather well-known German professors in order to issue a public proclamation against the treatment of Jewish professors, but Planck replied, "If you are able to gather today 30 such gentlemen, then tomorrow 150 others will come and speak against it, because they are eager to take over the positions of the others."[31] Under Planck's leadership, the Kaiser Wilhelm Society (KWG) avoided open conflict with the Nazi regime, except concerning the Jewish Fritz Haber. Planck tried to discuss the issue with the recently appointed Chancellor of Germany Adolf Hitler, but was unsuccessful, as to Hitler "the Jews are all Communists, and these are my enemies." In the following year, 1934, Haber died in exile.[32]

One year later, Planck, having been the president of the KWG since 1930, organized in a somewhat provocative style an official commemorative meeting for Haber. He also succeeded in secretly enabling a number of Jewish scientists to continue working in institutes of the KWG for several years. In 1936, his term as president of the KWG ended, and the Nazi government pressured him to refrain from seeking another term.

As the political climate in Germany gradually became more hostile, Johannes Stark, prominent exponent of Deutsche Physik ("German Physics", also called "Aryan Physics") attacked Planck, Sommerfeld and Heisenberg for continuing to teach the theories of Einstein, calling them "white Jews". The "Hauptamt Wissenschaft" (Nazi government office for science) started an investigation of Planck's ancestry, claiming that he was "1/16 Jewish", but Planck himself denied it.[33]

Planck's grave in Göttingen

In 1938, Planck celebrated his 80th birthday. The DPG held a celebration, during which the Max-Planck medal (founded as the highest medal by the DPG in 1928) was awarded to French physicist Louis de Broglie. At the end of 1938, the Prussian Academy lost its remaining independence and was taken over by Nazis (Gleichschaltung). Planck protested by resigning his presidency. He continued to travel frequently, giving numerous public talks, such as his talk on Religion and Science, and five years later he was sufficiently fit to climb 3,000-metre peaks in the Alps.

During the Second World War the increasing number of Allied bombing missions against Berlin forced Planck and his wife to temporarily leave the city and live in the countryside. In 1942, he wrote: "In me an ardent desire has grown to persevere this crisis and live long enough to be able to witness the turning point, the beginning of a new rise." In February 1944, his home in Berlin was completely destroyed by an air raid, annihilating all his scientific records and correspondence. His rural retreat was threatened by the rapid advance of the Allied armies from both sides.

In 1944, Planck's son Erwin was arrested by the Gestapo following the attempted assassination of Hitler in the 20 July plot. He was tried and sentenced to death by the People's Court in October 1944. Erwin was hanged at Berlin's Plötzensee Prison in January 1945. The death of his son destroyed much of Planck's will to live.[34] After the war had ended, Planck, his second wife, and their son were brought to a relative in Göttingen, where Planck died on October 4, 1947. His grave is situated in the old Stadtfriedhof (City Cemetery) in Göttingen.[35]

Religious views

Planck was a member of the Lutheran Church in Germany.[36] He was very tolerant towards alternative views and religions.[37] In a lecture in 1937 entitled "Religion und Naturwissenschaft" ("Religion and Natural Science") he suggested the importance of these symbols and rituals related directly with a believer's ability to worship God, but that one must be mindful that the symbols provide an imperfect illustration of divinity. He criticized atheism for being focused on the derision of such symbols, while at the same time warned of the over-estimation of the importance of such symbols by believers.[38]

Planck was tolerant and favorable to all religions. Although he remained in the Lutheran Church, he did not promote Christian or Biblical views. He believed "the faith in miracles must yield, step by step, before the steady and firm advance of the facts of science, and its total defeat is undoubtedly a matter of time."[39]

In "Religion und Naturwissenschaft", Planck expressed the view that God is everywhere present, and held that "the holiness of the unintelligible Godhead is conveyed by the holiness of symbols." Atheists, he thought, attach too much importance to what are merely symbols. He was a churchwarden from 1920 until his death, and believed in an almighty, all-knowing, beneficent God (though not necessarily a personal one). Both science and religion wage a "tireless battle against skepticism and dogmatism, against unbelief and superstition" with the goal "toward God!"[39]

Planck said in 1944, "As a man who has devoted his whole life to the most clear headed science, to the study of matter, I can tell you as a result of my research about atoms this much: There is no matter as such. All matter originates and exists only by virtue of a force which brings the particle of an atom to vibration and holds this most minute solar system of the atom together. We must assume behind this force the existence of a conscious and intelligent spirit [orig. geist]. This spirit is the matrix of all matter."[40]

Planck argued that the concept of God is important to both religion and science, but in different ways: "Both religion and science require a belief in God. For believers, God is in the beginning, and for physicists He is at the end of all considerations … To the former He is the foundation, to the latter, the crown of the edifice of every generalized world view".[41]

Furthermore, Planck wrote,

..."to believe" means "to recognize as a truth," and the knowledge of nature, continually advancing on incontestably safe tracks, has made it utterly impossible for a person possessing some training in natural science to recognize as founded on truth the many reports of extraordinary occurrences contradicting the laws of nature, of miracles which are still commonly regarded as essential supports and confirmations of religious doctrines, and which formerly used to be accepted as facts pure and simple, without doubt or criticism. The belief in miracles must retreat step by step before relentlessly and reliably progressing science and we cannot doubt that sooner or later it must vanish completely.[42]

Noted historian of science John L. Heilbron characterized Planck's views on God as deistic.[43] Heilbron further relates that when asked about his religious affiliation, Planck replied that although he had always been deeply religious, he did not believe "in a personal God, let alone a Christian God."[44]


Vorlesungen über die Theorie der Wärmestrahlung, 1906

Planck, M. (1900a). "Über eine Verbesserung der Wienschen Spektralgleichung". Verhandlungen der Deutschen Physikalischen Gesellschaft. 2: 202–204. Translated in ter Haar, D. (1967). "On an Improvement of Wien's Equation for the Spectrum" (PDF). The Old Quantum Theory. Pergamon Press. pp. 79–81. LCCN 66029628.

Planck, M. (1900b). "Zur Theorie des Gesetzes der Energieverteilung im Normalspectrum". Verhandlungen der Deutschen Physikalischen Gesellschaft. 2: 237. Translated in ter Haar, D. (1967). "On the Theory of the Energy Distribution Law of the Normal Spectrum" (PDF). The Old Quantum Theory. Pergamon Press. p. 82. LCCN 66029628.

Planck, M. (1900c). "Entropie und Temperatur strahlender Wärme" [Entropy and Temperature of Radiant Heat]. Annalen der Physik. 306 (4): 719–737. Bibcode:1900AnP...306..719P. doi:10.1002/andp.19003060410.

Planck, M. (1900d). "Über irreversible Strahlungsvorgänge" [On Irreversible Radiation Processes]. Annalen der Physik. 306 (1): 69–122. Bibcode:1900AnP...306...69P. doi:10.1002/andp.19003060105.

Planck, M. (1901). "Ueber das Gesetz der Energieverteilung im Normalspektrum". Annalen der Physik. 309 (3): 553–563. Bibcode:1901AnP...309..553P. doi:10.1002/andp.19013090310. Translated in Ando, K. "On the Law of Distribution of Energy in the Normal Spectrum" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 6 October 2011. Retrieved 13 October 2011.

Planck, M. (1903). Treatise on Thermodynamics. Ogg, A. (transl.). London: Longmans, Green & Co. OL 7246691M.

Planck, M. (1906). Vorlesungen über die Theorie der Wärmestrahlung. Leipzig: J.A. Barth. LCCN 07004527.

Planck, M. (1914). The Theory of Heat Radiation. Masius, M. (transl.) (2nd ed.). P. Blakiston's Son & Co. OL 7154661M.

Planck, M. (1915). Eight Lectures on Theoretical Physics. Wills, A. P. (transl.). Dover Publications. ISBN 0-486-69730-4.

Planck, M. (1908). Prinzip der Erhaltung der Energie. Leipzig.

Planck, M. (1943). "Zur Geschichte der Auffindung des physikalischen Wirkungsquantums". Naturwissenschaften. 31 (14–15): 153–159. Bibcode:1943NW.....31..153P. doi:10.1007/BF01475738. S2CID 44899488.

Almost half a century has elapsed since Max Planck’s discovery of the quantum of action, a time sufficiently long to estimate its importance for science and, more generally, for the development of human thought. There is no doubt that it was an event of the first order, comparable with the scientific revolutions brought about by Galileo and Newton, Faraday and Maxwell. Like these it has changed the whole aspect of physics and deeply influenced all neighbouring sciences, from chemistry to biology. Its philosophical implications reach far beyond the epistemology of science itself into the deepest roots of metaphysics. What kind of man was he who initiated this great movement? Apart from his numerous works, papers and books, we have a short Scientific Autobiography which is a great help in the understanding of his motives and his reactions. There are, furthermore, a series of articles published in Naturwissenschaften on the occasion of Planck’s sixtieth birthday, amongst them an excellent biographical one by Sommerfeld. All this valuable material will be used and quoted in the following attempt to give a picture of Planck’s personality. Yet my best help must be the memory of years of personal contact and friendship, which have left an unforgettable impression.

ACCORDING to the standard story,

which is unfortunately still found in

many physics textbooks, quantum theory emerged when it was realized that

classical physics predicts an energy distribution for black-body radiation that

disagrees violently with that found experimentally. In the late 1890s, so the

story continues, the German physicist

Wilhelm Wien developed an expression

that corresponded reasonably well with

experiment — but had no theoretical

foundation. When Lord Rayleigh and

James Jeans then analysed black-body

radiation from the perspective of classical physics, the resulting spectrum differed drastically from both experiment

and the Wien law. Faced with this grave

anomaly, Max Planck looked for a solution, during the course of which he

was forced to introduce the notion of

"energy quanta". With the quantum

hypothesis, a perfect match between the- credited for being the first person t0 reaNze that the

ory and experiment was obtained. Voila!

Quantum theory was born.

The story is a myth, closer to a fairytale than to historical truth. Quantum

theory did not owe its origin to any failure of classical physics, but instead to

Planck's profound insight in thermodynamics.

The enigmatic entropy

Quantum uncertainty- Max Planck is widely

energy of a body is "quantized", but history shows

that this is probably not what he had in mind at the

time. Indeed, the "discovery" of quantum theory

should not be seen as a moment of insight in

December 1900, but as an extended process by

many physicists.

| damental problem was the relationship

* between mechanics and electrodynam-

"'. ics, or between matter and the hypothetical ether. Could the laws of mechanics

.; be reduced to electrodynamics?

I Specialists in thermodynamics, meanwhile, focused on the relationship between the laws of mechanics and the

two basic laws of heat - the principle of

energy conservation and the second law

of thermodynamics. This discussion

looked at the status of statistical-molecular physics and therefore examined the

fundamental question of whether all

matter is composed of atoms. Although

the two discussions had much in common, it was die latter in particular from

which quantum theory emerged.

Max Karl Ernst Ludwig Planck was

deeply interested in - even obsessed

with — the second law of thermodynamics. According to this law (in one of its

many versions), no process is possible in

which the only result is the transfer of

heat from a colder to a hotter body. With

the help of the concept of entropy, introduced by Rudolf Clausius in 1865,

the law can be reformulated to state that

the entropy of an isolated system always

increases or remains constant.

Born in 1858 as the son of a professor of jurisprudence,

Planck was appointed professor of physics at the University of

During the final years of the 19th century, many physicists Berlin in 1889. His doctoral dissertation from the University

found themselves discussing the validity of the mechanical of Munich dealt with the second law, which was also the subworld view, which until then had been taken for granted. The ject of most of his work until about 1905. Planck's thoughts

question at the heart of the debate was whether time-hon- centred on the concept of entropy and how to understand

oured Newtonian mechanics could still be held as the valid "irreversibility" on the basis of the absolute validity of the

description of all of nature. entropy law — the version of the second law of thermodyIn these discussions, which probed the very foundations of namics formulated in terms of the entropy concept,

physics, electrodynamics and thermodynamics occupied centre In the 1890s the debate about the second law centred on die

stage. As far as the electrodynamicists were concerned, the fun- statistical (or probabilistic) interpretation that Ludwig BoltzPHVSICS WORLD DECEMBER 2000

mann had originally proposed back in

1872 and expanded in 1877. According

to Boltzmann's molecular-mechanical

interpretation, the entropy of a system is

the collective result of molecular motions. The second law is valid only in

a statistical sense. Boltzmann's theory,

which presupposed the existence of

atoms and molecules, was challenged

by Wilhelm Ostwald and other "energeticists", who wanted to free physics

from the notion of atoms and base it

on energy and related quantities.

What was Planck's position in this

debate? One might expect that he sided

with the winners, or those who soon

turned out to be the winners - namely

Boltzmann and the "atomists". But this

was not the case. Planck's belief in the

absolute validity of the second law

made him not only reject Boltzmann's

statistical version of thermodynamics

but also doubt the atomic hypothesis on

which it rested. As early as 1882, Planck

concluded that the atomic conception

of matter was irreconcilably opposed to the law of entropy

increase. "There will be a fight between these two hypotheses

that will cause the life of one of them," he predicted. As to

the outcome of the fight, he wrote that "in spite of the great

successes of the atomistic theory in the past, we will finally

have to give it up and to decide in favour of the assumption

of continuous matter".

However, Planck's opposition to atomism waned during the

1890s as he realized the power of the hypothesis and the unification it brought to a variety of physical and chemical phenomena. All the same, his attitude to atomism remained

ambiguous and he continued to give priority to macroscopic

thermodynamics and ignore Boltzmann's statistical theory.

Indeed, by 1895 he was ready to embark on a major research

programme to determine thermodynamic irreversibility in

terms of some micro-mechanical or micro-electrodynamical

model that did not explicitly involve the atomic hypothesis.

The programme not only expressed Planck's deep interest in

the concept of entropy, but also displayed his "aristocratic"

attitude to physics: he focused on the fundamental aspects

and disregarded more mundane, applied ideas. His fascinPlanck rejected the statistical interpretation of the

second law of thermodynamics developed by

Ludwig Boltzmann (above) and tried, mistakenly, to

justify irreversibility in terms of electrodynamics

Electrodynamics, Boltzmann showed,

provides no more an "arrow of time"

than mechanics. Planck had to find

another way of justifying irreversibility.

The study of black-body radiation

had begun in 1859, when Robert Kirchhoff, Planck's predecessor as professor

of physics in Berlin, argued that such

radiation was of a fundamental nature.

By the 1890s several physicists - experimentalists and theorists — were investigating the spectral distribution of the

radiation. Important progress was made

in 1896 when Wien found a radiation

law that was in convincing agreement

with the precise measurements beingperformed at the Physikalisch-Technische Reichsanstalt in Berlin.

According to Wien, the spectral density, u, - the radiation energy density per

unit frequency - depended on the frequency, V, and temperature, T, according

to the formula «(v, T) = av3

exp((3v/ T)-]


where a and (3 are constants to be determined empirically. However, Wien's law

lacked a satisfactory theoretical foundation and was, for this

reason, not acceptable to Planck. It is important to note that

Planck's dissatisfaction was not rooted in Wien's formula -

which he fully accepted — but in Wien's derivation of it. Planck

was not interested in producing an empirically correct law, but

in establishing a rigorous derivation of it. In this way, he

believed, he would be able to justify the entropy law.

Guided by Boltzmann's kinetic theory of gases, Planck formulated what he called a "principle of elementary disorder"

that did not rely either on mechanics or on electrodynamics.

He used it to define the entropy of an ideal oscillator (dipole)

but was careful not to identify such oscillators with specific

atoms or molecules. In 1899 Planck found an expression for

the oscillator entropy from which Wien's law followed. The

law (sometimes referred to as the Wien-Planck law) had now

obtained a fundamental status. Planck was satisfied. After all,

the law had the additional qualification that it agreed beautifully with measurements. Or so it was thought.

Discrepancy with theory

The harmony between theory and experiment did not last

ation with entropy, which was shared by only a handful of long. To Planck's consternation, experiments performed in

other physicists, was not considered to be of central importance or of providing significant results. And yet it did.

Black-body radiation

From the perspective of Planck and his contemporaries, it

was natural to seek an explanation of the entropy law in

Maxwell's electrodynamics. After all, Maxwell's theory was

fundamental and was supposed to govern the behaviour of

the microscopic oscillators that produced the heat radiation

emitted by black bodies. Planck initially believed that he had

justified the irreversibility of radiation processes through the

lack of time symmetry in Maxwell's equations - i.e. that

the laws of electrodynamics distinguish between past and

present, between forward-going and backward-going time.

However, in 1897 Boltzmann demolished this argument.

Berlin showed that the Wien-Planck law did not correctly

describe the spectrum at very low frequencies. Something

had gone wrong, and Planck had to return to his desk to

reconsider why the apparently fundamental derivation produced an incorrect result. The problem, it seemed to him, lay

in the definition of the oscillator's entropy.

With a revised expression for the entropy of a single oscillator, Planck obtained a new distribution law that he presented at a meeting of the German Physical Society on 19

October 1900. The spectral distribution was now given as

«(v,T) = OCV3

[exp(pv/T)- I]"1

, which approximates Wien's

law at relatively high frequencies. More interestingly, this

first version of the famous Planck radiation law also agreed

perfectly with the experimental spectrum in the lower-frequency infrared region. Although it included a constant P



130 -





«f 80

(0 70

S 60






that Planck believed was fundamental,

the subsequent shift from (3 to h was

more than merely a relabelling. Planck's

derivation did not make use of energy

quantization and neither did it rely on

Boltzmann's probabilistic interpretation of entropy.

Those developments were to come

two months later in "an act of desperation" as Planck later recalled. Before

proceeding to this act of desperation,

we need to consider the Rayleigh-Jeans

law and the so-called "ultraviolet catastrophe", if only to discard it as historically irrelevant. In June 1900 Rayleigh

pointed out that classical mechanics,

when applied to the oscillators of a

black body, leads to an energy distribution that increases in proportion to

the square of the frequency - utterly

in conflict with the data. He based his

reasoning on the so-called equipartition

theorem from which it follows that the

average energy of the oscillators making up a black body will be given by

kT, where A: is Boltzmann's constant.

Five years later, Rayleigh and Jeans

presented what is still known as the

Rayleigh-Jeans formula, usually written

as u(v,T)-(8nv2


)kT, where c is the

speed of light. The result is an energy

density that keeps on increasing as the

frequency gets higher and higher, becoming "catastrophic" in the ultraviolet

region. In spite of its prominent role in

physics textbooks, the formula played no

part at all in the earliest phase of quantum theory. Planck did not accept the

equipartition theorem as fundamental,

and therefore ignored it. Incidentally,

neither did Rayleigh and Jeans consider the theorem to be

universally valid. The "ultraviolet catastrophe" — a name

coined by Paul Ehrenfest in 1911 — only became a matter of discussion in a later phase of quantum theory.

In November 1900 Planck realized that his new entropy

expression was scarcely more than an inspired guess. To

secure a more fundamental derivation he now turned to

Boltzmann's probabilistic notion of entropy that he had

ignored for so long. But although Planck now adopted

Boltzmann's view, he did not fully convert to the Austrian

physicist's thinking. He remained convinced that the entropy

law was absolute — and not inherently probabilistic — and

therefore reinterpreted Boltzmann's theory in his own

non-probabilistic way. It was during this period that he stated

for the first time what has since become known as the

"Boltzmann equation" S= klogW, which relates the entropy,

S, to the molecular disorder, W.

To find W, Planck had to be able to count the number of

ways a given energy can be distributed among a set of oscillators. It was in order to find this counting procedure that

Planck, inspired by Boltzmann, introduced what he called

"energy elements", namely the assumption that the total

1 2 3 4 5 6

wavelength (u.m)

Law breaker - in 1896 Wilhelm Wien derived an

empirical law that appeared to accurately describe

the radiation emitted by a black body. However, as

these spectra measured by Otto Lummer and Ernst

Pringsheim in November 1899 reveal, Wien's

theoretical curve (green line) did not agree with the

experimental data (red line) at long wavelengths,

indicating the inadequacy of Wien's law. Faced with

this grave anomaly, Planck looked for a solution,

during the course of this he was forced to introduce

the notion of "energy quanta".

energy of the black-body oscillators, E,

is divided into finite portions of energy,

£, via a process known as "quantization". In his seminal paper published

in late 1900 and presented to the German Physical Society on 14 December -

100 years ago this month - Planck

regarded the energy "as made up of a

completely determinate number of finite equal parts, and for this purpose I

use the constant of nature h=6.55 X 10"27

(erg sec)". Moreover, he continued, "this

constant, once multiplied by the common frequency of the resonators, gives

the energy element £ in ergs, and by division of E by £ we get the number P of

energy elements to be distributed over

the jV resonators".

Quantum theory was born. Or was it?

Surely Planck's constant had appeared,

with the same symbol and roughly

the same value as used today. But the

essence of quantum theory is energy

quantization, and it is far from evident

that this is what Planck had in mind. As

he explained in a letter written in 1931,

the introduction of energy quanta in

1900 was "a purely formal assumption

and I really did not give it much thought

except that no matter what the cost, I

must bring about a positive result".

Planck did not emphasize the discrete

nature of energy processes and was unconcerned with the detailed behaviour

of his abstract oscillators. Far more

interesting than the quantum discontinuity (whatever it meant) was the impressive accuracy of the new radiation

law and the constants of nature that appeared in it.

A conservative revolutionary

If a revolution occurred in physics in December 1900, nobody seemed to notice it. Planck was no exception, and the

importance ascribed to his work is largely a historical reconstruction. Whereas Planck's radiation law was quickly accepted, what we today consider its conceptual novelty - its

basis in energy quantization — was scarcely noticed. Very few

physicists expressed any interest in the justification of Planck's

formula, and during die first few years of the 20th century no

one considered his results to conflict with the foundations of

classical physics. As for Planck himself, he strove hard to keep

his theory on die solid ground of the classical physics that he

loved so much. Like Copernicus, Planck became a revolutionary against his will.

Planck was the archetype of the classical mind, a noble product of his time and culture. Throughout his distinguished

career as a physicist and statesman of science, he maintained

that the ultimate goal of science was a unified world picture

built on absolute and universal laws of science. He firmly

believed that such laws existed and that they reflected the

inner mechanisms of nature, an objective reality where


human thoughts and passions had no

place. The second law of thermodynamics was always his favourite example of how a law of physics could

be progressively freed from anthropomorphic associations and turned into a

purely objective and universal law. After

1900 he increasingly recognized Boltzmann's probabilistic law of entropy as

grand and fundamental, but he stopped

short of accepting its central message,

that there is a finite (if exceedingly small)

probability that the entropy of an isolated system decreases over time. Only

in about 1912 did he give up this last

reservation and accepted the truly statistical nature of the second law.

As to the quantum discontinuity — the

crucial feature that the energy does not

vary continuously, but in "jumps" - he

believed for a long time that it was a kind

of mathematical hypothesis, an artefact

that did not refer to real energy exchanges between matter and radiation.

From his point of view, there was no reason to suspect a breakdown of the laws of classical mechanics

and electrodynamics. That Planck did not see his theory as a

drastic departure from classical physics is also illustrated by

his strange silence: between 1901 and 1906 he did not publish

anything at all on black-body radiation or quantum theory.

Only in about 1908, to a large extent influenced by the penetrating analysis of the Dutch physicist Hendrik Lorentz, did

Planck convert to the view that the quantum of action represents an irreducible phenomenon beyond the understanding

of classical physics.

Over the next three years Planck became convinced that

quantum theory marked the beginning of a new chapter in

the history of physics and, in this sense, was of a revolutionary nature. "The hypothesis of quanta will never vanish from

the world," he proudly declared in a lecture of 1911. "I do not

believe I am going too far if I express the opinion that with

this hypothesis the foundation is laid for the construction of a

theory which is someday destined to permeate the swift and

delicate events of the molecular world with a new light."

Einstein: the real founder of quantum theory?

So is December 2000 the right moment to celebrate the centenary of quantum theory? In other words, did Planck really

introduce the quantum hypothesis a century ago? The historian and philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn, who carefully

analysed Planck's route to the black-body radiation law and

its aftermath, certainly thought Planck does not deserve the

credit (see further reading).

However, there is evidence both for and against Kuhn's

controversial interpretation, which has been much discussed

by historians of physics. There is a fairly strong case that we

ought to wait a few more years before celebrating the quantum centenary. On the other hand, the case can be disputed

and it is clearly not unreasonable to chose 2000 as the centenary and Planck as the father of quantum theory. Besides,

there is a long tradition of assigning paternity to Planck, who,

after all, received the 1918 Nobel Prize for Physics for "his disMass recognition - quantum theory only really took off following the first "Solvay" conference in Brussels in

1911, attended by leading lights from physics. But even then it was not believed that quantum theory had

anything to do with atomic structure. Planck is standing second from the left. Einstein is second on the right.

covery of energy quanta". Jubilees and similar celebrations

enhance traditions, they do not question them.

As Kuhn points out, nowhere in his papers of 1900 and 1901

did Planck clearly write that the energy of a single oscillator

can only attain discrete energies according to E-nZ-nh\,

where n is an integer. If this is what he meant, why didn't he say

so? And if he realized that he had introduced energy quantization — a strange, non-classical concept — why did he remain

silent for more than four years? Moreover, in his Lectures on the

Theory of Thermal Radiation from 1906, Planck argued for a continuum theory that made no mention of discrete oscillator

energy. If he had "seen the light" as early as 1900 — as he later

claimed - what caused him to change his mind six years later?

Could the answer be that he did not change his mind because

he had not seen the light?

These are only some of the arguments put forward by

Kuhn and those historians of physics who support his case.

Like historical arguments in general, the controversy over

the quantum discontinuity rests on a series of evidence and

counter-evidence that can only be evaluated qualitatively and

as a whole, not determined in the clear-cut manner that we

know from physics (or rather from some physics textbooks).

If Planck did not introduce the hypothesis of energy quanta

in 1900, who did? Lorentz and even Boltzmann have been

mentioned as candidates, but a far stronger case can be made

that it was Einstein who first recognized the essence of quantum theory. Einstein's remarkable contributions to the early

phase of quantum theory are well known and beyond dispute.

Most famous is his 1905 theory of light quanta (or photons),

but he also made important contributions in 1907 on the

quantum theory of the specific heats of solids and in 1909 on

energy fluctuations.

There is no doubt that the young Einstein saw deeper than

Planck, and that Einstein alone recognized that the quantum

discontinuity was an essential part of Planck's theory of

black-body radiation. Whether this makes Einstein "the true

discoverer of the quantum discontinuity", as claimed by the


Genuine genius? - some historians regard Einstein as the true father of

quantum theory. He developed the theory of light quanta in 1905 and made

important contributions in 1907 to the quantum theory of the specific heats of

solids and in 1909 to energy fluctuations. Shown here is Einstein (right)

receiving the Planck medal from Planck himself in July 1929.

French historian of physics Olivier Darrigol, is another matter. What is important is that Planck's role in the discovery of

quantum theory was complex and somewhat ambiguous. To

credit him alone with the discovery, as is done in some physics

textbooks, is much too simplistic. Other physicists, and Einstein in particular, were crucially involved in the creation of

quantum theory. The "discovery" should be seen as an extended process and not as a moment of insight communicated

on a particular day in late 1900.

Einstein's 1907 theory of specific heats was an important

element in the process that established quantum theory as a

major field of physics. The changed status of quantum theory was recognized institutionally with the first Solvay conference of 1911, on "radiation theory and the quanta", an event

that heralded the take-off phase of quantum theory. The participants in Brussels realized that with quantum theory the

course of physics was about to change. Where the development would lead, nobody could tell. For example, it was not

believed that quantum theory had anything to do with atomic

structure. Two years later, with the advent of Niels Bohr's

atomic theory, quantum theory took a new turn that eventually would lead to quantum mechanics and a new foundation

of the physicists' world picture.

The routes of history are indeed unpredictable.

Max Planck, in full Max Karl Ernst Ludwig Planck, (born April 23, 1858, Kiel, Schleswig [Germany]—died October 4, 1947, Göttingen, Germany), German theoretical physicist who originated quantum theory, which won him the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1918.

Planck made many contributions to theoretical physics, but his fame rests primarily on his role as originator of the quantum theory. This theory revolutionized our understanding of atomic and subatomic processes, just as Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity revolutionized our understanding of space and time. Together they constitute the fundamental theories of 20th-century physics. Both have forced humankind to revise some of the most-cherished philosophical beliefs, and both have led to industrial and military applications that affect every aspect of modern life.

Early life

Max Karl Ernst Ludwig Planck was the sixth child of a distinguished jurist and professor of law at the University of Kiel. The long family tradition of devotion to church and state, excellence in scholarship, incorruptibility, conservatism, idealism, reliability, and generosity became deeply ingrained in Planck’s own life and work. When Planck was nine years old, his father received an appointment at the University of Munich, and Planck entered the city’s renowned Maximilian Gymnasium, where a teacher, Hermann Müller, stimulated his interest in physics and mathematics. But Planck excelled in all subjects, and after graduation at age 17 he faced a difficult career decision. He ultimately chose physics over classical philology or music because he had dispassionately reached the conclusion that it was in physics that his greatest originality lay. Music, nonetheless, remained an integral part of his life. He possessed the gift of absolute pitch and was an excellent pianist who daily found serenity and delight at the keyboard, enjoying especially the works of Schubert and Brahms. He also loved the outdoors, taking long walks each day and hiking and climbing in the mountains on vacations, even in advanced old age.

Planck entered the University of Munich in the fall of 1874 but found little encouragement there from physics professor Philipp von Jolly. During a year spent at the University of Berlin (1877–78), he was unimpressed by the lectures of Hermann von Helmholtz and Gustav Robert Kirchhoff, despite their eminence as research scientists. His intellectual capacities were, however, brought to a focus as the result of his independent study, especially of Rudolf Clausius’s writings on thermodynamics. Returning to Munich, he received his doctoral degree in July 1879 (the year of Einstein’s birth) at the unusually young age of 21. The following year he completed his Habilitationsschrift (qualifying dissertation) at Munich and became a Privatdozent (lecturer). In 1885, with the help of his father’s professional connections, he was appointed ausserordentlicher Professor (associate professor) at the University of Kiel. In 1889, after the death of Kirchhoff, Planck received an appointment to the University of Berlin, where he came to venerate Helmholtz as a mentor and colleague. In 1892 he was promoted to ordentlicher Professor (full professor). He had only nine doctoral students altogether, but his Berlin lectures on all branches of theoretical physics went through many editions and exerted great influence. He remained in Berlin for the rest of his active life.

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Planck recalled that his “original decision to devote myself to science was a direct result of the discovery…that the laws of human reasoning coincide with the laws governing the sequences of the impressions we receive from the world about us; that, therefore, pure reasoning can enable man to gain an insight into the mechanism of the [world]….” He deliberately decided, in other words, to become a theoretical physicist at a time when theoretical physics was not yet recognized as a discipline in its own right. But he went further: he concluded that the existence of physical laws presupposes that the “outside world is something independent from man, something absolute, and the quest for the laws which apply to this absolute appeared…as the most sublime scientific pursuit in life.”

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The first instance of an absolute in nature that impressed Planck deeply, even as a Gymnasium student, was the law of the conservation of energy, the first law of thermodynamics. Later, during his university years, he became equally convinced that the entropy law, the second law of thermodynamics, was also an absolute law of nature. The second law became the subject of his doctoral dissertation at Munich, and it lay at the core of the researches that led him to discover the quantum of action, now known as Planck’s constant h, in 1900.

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In 1859–60 Kirchhoff had defined a blackbody as an object that reemits all of the radiant energy incident upon it; i.e., it is a perfect emitter and absorber of radiation. There was, therefore, something absolute about blackbody radiation, and by the 1890s various experimental and theoretical attempts had been made to determine its spectral energy distribution—the curve displaying how much radiant energy is emitted at different frequencies for a given temperature of the blackbody. Planck was particularly attracted to the formula found in 1896 by his colleague Wilhelm Wien at the Physikalisch-Technische Reichsanstalt (PTR) in Berlin-Charlottenburg, and he subsequently made a series of attempts to derive “Wien’s law” on the basis of the second law of thermodynamics. By October 1900, however, other colleagues at the PTR, the experimentalists Otto Richard Lummer, Ernst Pringsheim, Heinrich Rubens, and Ferdinand Kurlbaum, had found definite indications that Wien’s law, while valid at high frequencies, broke down completely at low frequencies.

Planck learned of these results just before a meeting of the German Physical Society on October 19. He knew how the entropy of the radiation had to depend mathematically upon its energy in the high-frequency region if Wien’s law held there. He also saw what this dependence had to be in the low-frequency region in order to reproduce the experimental results there. Planck guessed, therefore, that he should try to combine these two expressions in the simplest way possible, and to transform the result into a formula relating the energy of the radiation to its frequency.

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The result, which is known as Planck’s radiation law, was hailed as indisputably correct. To Planck, however, it was simply a guess, a “lucky intuition.” If it was to be taken seriously, it had to be derived somehow from first principles. That was the task to which Planck immediately directed his energies, and by December 14, 1900, he had succeeded—but at great cost. To achieve his goal, Planck found that he had to relinquish one of his own most cherished beliefs, that the second law of thermodynamics was an absolute law of nature. Instead he had to embrace Ludwig Boltzmann’s interpretation, that the second law was a statistical law. In addition, Planck had to assume that the oscillators comprising the blackbody and re-emitting the radiant energy incident upon them could not absorb this energy continuously but only in discrete amounts, in quanta of energy; only by statistically distributing these quanta, each containing an amount of energy hν proportional to its frequency, over all of the oscillators present in the blackbody could Planck derive the formula he had hit upon two months earlier. He adduced additional evidence for the importance of his formula by using it to evaluate the constant h (his value was 6.55 × 10−27 erg-second, close to the modern value of 6.626 × 10−27 erg-second), as well as the so-called Boltzmann constant (the fundamental constant in kinetic theory and statistical mechanics), Avogadro’s number, and the charge of the electron. As time went on physicists recognized ever more clearly that—because Planck’s constant was not zero but had a small but finite value—the microphysical world, the world of atomic dimensions, could not in principle be described by ordinary classical mechanics. A profound revolution in physical theory was in the making.

Planck’s concept of energy quanta, in other words, conflicted fundamentally with all past physical theory. He was driven to introduce it strictly by the force of his logic; he was, as one historian put it, a reluctant revolutionary. Indeed, it was years before the far-reaching consequences of Planck’s achievement were generally recognized, and in this Einstein played a central role. In 1905, independently of Planck’s work, Einstein argued that under certain circumstances radiant energy itself seemed to consist of quanta (light quanta, later called photons), and in 1907 he showed the generality of the quantum hypothesis by using it to interpret the temperature dependence of the specific heats of solids. In 1909 Einstein introduced the wave-particle duality into physics. In October 1911 Planck and Einstein were among the group of prominent physicists who attended the first Solvay conference in Brussels. The discussions there stimulated Henri Poincaré to provide a mathematical proof that Planck’s radiation law necessarily required the introduction of quanta—a proof that converted James Jeans and others into supporters of the quantum theory. In 1913 Niels Bohr also contributed greatly to its establishment through his quantum theory of the hydrogen atom. Ironically, Planck himself was one of the last to struggle for a return to classical theory, a stance he later regarded not with regret but as a means by which he had thoroughly convinced himself of the necessity of the quantum theory. Opposition to Einstein’s radical light quantum hypothesis of 1905 persisted until after the discovery of the Compton effect in 1922.

Later life of Max Planck

Planck was 42 years old in 1900 when he made the famous discovery that in 1918 won him the Nobel Prize for Physics and that brought him many other honours. It is not surprising that he subsequently made no discoveries of comparable importance. Nevertheless, he continued to contribute at a high level to various branches of optics, thermodynamics and statistical mechanics, physical chemistry, and other fields. He was also the first prominent physicist to champion Einstein’s special theory of relativity (1905). “The velocity of light is to the Theory of Relativity,” Planck remarked, “as the elementary quantum of action is to the Quantum Theory; it is its absolute core.” In 1914 Planck and the physical chemist Walther Hermann Nernst succeeded in bringing Einstein to Berlin, and after the war, in 1919, arrangements were made for Max von Laue, Planck’s favourite student, to come to Berlin as well. When Planck retired in 1928, another prominent theoretical physicist, Erwin Schrödinger, the originator of wave mechanics, was chosen as his successor. For a time, therefore, Berlin shone brilliantly as a centre of theoretical physics—until darkness enveloped it in January 1933 with the ascent of Adolf Hitler to power.

In his later years, Planck devoted more and more of his writings to philosophical, aesthetic, and religious questions. Together with Einstein and Schrödinger, he remained adamantly opposed to the indeterministic, statistical worldview introduced by Bohr, Max Born, Werner Heisenberg, and others into physics after the advent of quantum mechanics in 1925–26. Such a view was not in harmony with Planck’s deepest intuitions and beliefs. The physical universe, Planck argued, is an objective entity existing independently of man; the observer and the observed are not intimately coupled, as Bohr and his school would have it.

Planck became permanent secretary of the mathematics and physics sections of the Prussian Academy of Sciences in 1912 and held that position until 1938; he was also president of the Kaiser Wilhelm Society (now the Max Planck Society) from 1930 to 1937. These offices and others placed Planck in a position of great authority, especially among German physicists; seldom were his decisions or advice questioned. His authority, however, stemmed fundamentally not from the official appointments he held but from his personal moral force. His fairness, integrity, and wisdom were beyond question. It was completely in character that Planck went directly to Hitler in an attempt to reverse Hitler’s devastating racial policies and that he chose to remain in Germany during the Nazi period to try to preserve what he could of German physics.

Planck was a man of indomitable will. Had he been less stoic, and had he had less philosophical and religious conviction, he could scarcely have withstood the tragedies that entered his life after age 50. In 1909, his first wife, Marie Merck, the daughter of a Munich banker, died after 22 years of happy marriage, leaving Planck with two sons and twin daughters. The elder son, Karl, was killed in action in 1916. The following year, Margarete, one of his daughters, died in childbirth, and in 1919 the same fate befell Emma, his other daughter. World War II brought further tragedy. Planck’s house in Berlin was completely destroyed by bombs in 1944. Far worse, the younger son, Erwin, was implicated in the attempt made on Hitler’s life on July 20, 1944, and in early 1945 he died a horrible death at the hands of the Gestapo. That merciless act destroyed Planck’s will to live. At war’s end, American officers took Planck and his second wife, Marga von Hoesslin, whom he had married in 1910 and by whom he had had one son, to Göttingen. There, in 1947, in his 89th year, he died. Death, in the words of James Franck, came to him “as a redemption.”

Roger H. Stuewer

Isaac Newton

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Died: March 31, 1727 (aged 84) London England

Notable Works: “Opticks” “The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy” “The Method of Fluxions and Infinite Series”

Subjects Of Study: Newton’s iterative method colour gravity reflection refraction

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Isaac Newton, in full Sir Isaac Newton, (born December 25, 1642 [January 4, 1643, New Style], Woolsthorpe, Lincolnshire, England—died March 20 [March 31], 1727, London), English physicist and mathematician, who was the culminating figure of the Scientific Revolution of the 17th century. In optics, his discovery of the composition of white light integrated the phenomena of colours into the science of light and laid the foundation for modern physical optics. In mechanics, his three laws of motion, the basic principles of modern physics, resulted in the formulation of the law of universal gravitation. In mathematics, he was the original discoverer of the infinitesimal calculus. Newton’s Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, 1687) was one of the most important single works in the history of modern science.

Formative influences

Born in the hamlet of Woolsthorpe, Newton was the only son of a local yeoman, also Isaac Newton, who had died three months before, and of Hannah Ayscough. That same year, at Arcetri near Florence, Galileo Galilei had died; Newton would eventually pick up his idea of a mathematical science of motion and bring his work to full fruition. A tiny and weak baby, Newton was not expected to survive his first day of life, much less 84 years. Deprived of a father before birth, he soon lost his mother as well, for within two years she married a second time; her husband, the well-to-do minister Barnabas Smith, left young Isaac with his grandmother and moved to a neighbouring village to raise a son and two daughters. For nine years, until the death of Barnabas Smith in 1653, Isaac was effectively separated from his mother, and his pronounced psychotic tendencies have been ascribed to this traumatic event. That he hated his stepfather we may be sure. When he examined the state of his soul in 1662 and compiled a catalog of sins in shorthand, he remembered “Threatning my father and mother Smith to burne them and the house over them.” The acute sense of insecurity that rendered him obsessively anxious when his work was published and irrationally violent when he defended it accompanied Newton throughout his life and can plausibly be traced to his early years.

After his mother was widowed a second time, she determined that her first-born son should manage her now considerable property. It quickly became apparent, however, that this would be a disaster, both for the estate and for Newton. He could not bring himself to concentrate on rural affairs—set to watch the cattle, he would curl up under a tree with a book. Fortunately, the mistake was recognized, and Newton was sent back to the grammar school in Grantham, where he had already studied, to prepare for the university. As with many of the leading scientists of the age, he left behind in Grantham anecdotes about his mechanical ability and his skill in building models of machines, such as clocks and windmills. At the school he apparently gained a firm command of Latin but probably received no more than a smattering of arithmetic. By June 1661 he was ready to matriculate at Trinity College, Cambridge, somewhat older than the other undergraduates because of his interrupted education.

Influence of the Scientific Revolution

When Newton arrived in Cambridge in 1661, the movement now known as the Scientific Revolution was well advanced, and many of the works basic to modern science had appeared. Astronomers from Nicolaus Copernicus to Johannes Kepler had elaborated the heliocentric system of the universe. Galileo had proposed the foundations of a new mechanics built on the principle of inertia. Led by René Descartes, philosophers had begun to formulate a new conception of nature as an intricate, impersonal, and inert machine. Yet as far as the universities of Europe, including Cambridge, were concerned, all this might well have never happened. They continued to be the strongholds of outmoded Aristotelianism, which rested on a geocentric view of the universe and dealt with nature in qualitative rather than quantitative terms.

Equations written on blackboard

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Like thousands of other undergraduates, Newton began his higher education by immersing himself in Aristotle’s work. Even though the new philosophy was not in the curriculum, it was in the air. Some time during his undergraduate career, Newton discovered the works of the French natural philosopher Descartes and the other mechanical philosophers, who, in contrast to Aristotle, viewed physical reality as composed entirely of particles of matter in motion and who held that all the phenomena of nature result from their mechanical interaction. A new set of notes, which he entitled “Quaestiones Quaedam Philosophicae” (“Certain Philosophical Questions”), begun sometime in 1664, usurped the unused pages of a notebook intended for traditional scholastic exercises; under the title he entered the slogan “Amicus Plato amicus Aristoteles magis amica veritas” (“Plato is my friend, Aristotle is my friend, but my best friend is truth”). Newton’s scientific career had begun.

The “Quaestiones” reveal that Newton had discovered the new conception of nature that provided the framework of the Scientific Revolution. He had thoroughly mastered the works of Descartes and had also discovered that the French philosopher Pierre Gassendi had revived atomism, an alternative mechanical system to explain nature. The “Quaestiones” also reveal that Newton already was inclined to find the latter a more attractive philosophy than Cartesian natural philosophy, which rejected the existence of ultimate indivisible particles. The works of the 17th-century chemist Robert Boyle provided the foundation for Newton’s considerable work in chemistry. Significantly, he had read Henry More, the Cambridge Platonist, and was thereby introduced to another intellectual world, the magical Hermetic tradition, which sought to explain natural phenomena in terms of alchemical and magical concepts. The two traditions of natural philosophy, the mechanical and the Hermetic, antithetical though they appear, continued to influence his thought and in their tension supplied the fundamental theme of his scientific career.

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Although he did not record it in the “Quaestiones,” Newton had also begun his mathematical studies. He again started with Descartes, from whose La Géometrie he branched out into the other literature of modern analysis with its application of algebraic techniques to problems of geometry. He then reached back for the support of classical geometry. Within little more than a year, he had mastered the literature; and, pursuing his own line of analysis, he began to move into new territory. He discovered the binomial theorem, and he developed the calculus, a more powerful form of analysis that employs infinitesimal considerations in finding the slopes of curves and areas under curves.

By 1669 Newton was ready to write a tract summarizing his progress, De Analysi per Aequationes Numeri Terminorum Infinitas (“On Analysis by Infinite Series”), which circulated in manuscript through a limited circle and made his name known. During the next two years he revised it as De methodis serierum et fluxionum (“On the Methods of Series and Fluxions”). The word fluxions, Newton’s private rubric, indicates that the calculus had been born. Despite the fact that only a handful of savants were even aware of Newton’s existence, he had arrived at the point where he had become the leading mathematician in Europe.

Work during the plague years

Who created the colour wheel?

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When Newton received the bachelor’s degree in April 1665, the most remarkable undergraduate career in the history of university education had passed unrecognized. On his own, without formal guidance, he had sought out the new philosophy and the new mathematics and made them his own, but he had confined the progress of his studies to his notebooks. Then, in 1665, the plague closed the university, and for most of the following two years he was forced to stay at his home, contemplating at leisure what he had learned. During the plague years Newton laid the foundations of the calculus and extended an earlier insight into an essay, “Of Colours,” which contains most of the ideas elaborated in his Opticks. It was during this time that he examined the elements of circular motion and, applying his analysis to the Moon and the planets, derived the inverse square relation that the radially directed force acting on a planet decreases with the square of its distance from the Sun—which was later crucial to the law of universal gravitation. The world heard nothing of these discoveries.

Career of Isaac Newton

The optics

Inaugural lectures at Trinity

Isaac Newton: Opticks

Isaac Newton: Opticks

Newton was elected to a fellowship in Trinity College in 1667, after the university reopened. Two years later, Isaac Barrow, Lucasian professor of mathematics, who had transmitted Newton’s De Analysi to John Collins in London, resigned the chair to devote himself to divinity and recommended Newton to succeed him. The professorship exempted Newton from the necessity of tutoring but imposed the duty of delivering an annual course of lectures. He chose the work he had done in optics as the initial topic; during the following three years (1670–72), his lectures developed the essay “Of Colours” into a form which was later revised to become Book One of his Opticks.

Isaac Newton: prism

Isaac Newton: prism

Isaac Newton's prism experiment

Isaac Newton's prism experiment

Beginning with Kepler’s Paralipomena in 1604, the study of optics had been a central activity of the Scientific Revolution. Descartes’s statement of the sine law of refraction, relating the angles of incidence and emergence at interfaces of the media through which light passes, had added a new mathematical regularity to the science of light, supporting the conviction that the universe is constructed according to mathematical regularities. Descartes had also made light central to the mechanical philosophy of nature; the reality of light, he argued, consists of motion transmitted through a material medium. Newton fully accepted the mechanical nature of light, although he chose the atomistic alternative and held that light consists of material corpuscles in motion. The corpuscular conception of light was always a speculative theory on the periphery of his optics, however. The core of Newton’s contribution had to do with colours. An ancient theory extending back at least to Aristotle held that a certain class of colour phenomena, such as the rainbow, arises from the modification of light, which appears white in its pristine form. Descartes had generalized this theory for all colours and translated it into mechanical imagery. Through a series of experiments performed in 1665 and 1666, in which the spectrum of a narrow beam was projected onto the wall of a darkened chamber, Newton denied the concept of modification and replaced it with that of analysis. Basically, he denied that light is simple and homogeneous—stating instead that it is complex and heterogeneous and that the phenomena of colours arise from the analysis of the heterogeneous mixture into its simple components. The ultimate source of Newton’s conviction that light is corpuscular was his recognition that individual rays of light have immutable properties; in his view, such properties imply immutable particles of matter. He held that individual rays (that is, particles of given size) excite sensations of individual colours when they strike the retina of the eye. He also concluded that rays refract at distinct angles—hence, the prismatic spectrum, a beam of heterogeneous rays, i.e., alike incident on one face of a prism, separated or analyzed by the refraction into its component parts—and that phenomena such as the rainbow are produced by refractive analysis. Because he believed that chromatic aberration could never be eliminated from lenses, Newton turned to reflecting telescopes; he constructed the first ever built. The heterogeneity of light has been the foundation of physical optics since his time.

There is no evidence that the theory of colours, fully described by Newton in his inaugural lectures at Cambridge, made any impression, just as there is no evidence that aspects of his mathematics and the content of the Principia, also pronounced from the podium, made any impression. Rather, the theory of colours, like his later work, was transmitted to the world through the Royal Society of London, which had been organized in 1660. When Newton was appointed Lucasian professor, his name was probably unknown in the Royal Society; in 1671, however, they heard of his reflecting telescope and asked to see it. Pleased by their enthusiastic reception of the telescope and by his election to the society, Newton volunteered a paper on light and colours early in 1672. On the whole, the paper was also well received, although a few questions and some dissent were heard.


Among the most important dissenters to Newton’s paper was Robert Hooke, one of the leaders of the Royal Society who considered himself the master in optics and hence he wrote a condescending critique of the unknown parvenu. One can understand how the critique would have annoyed a normal man. The flaming rage it provoked, with the desire publicly to humiliate Hooke, however, bespoke the abnormal. Newton was unable rationally to confront criticism. Less than a year after submitting the paper, he was so unsettled by the give and take of honest discussion that he began to cut his ties, and he withdrew into virtual isolation.

Newton's rings

Newton's rings

In 1675, during a visit to London, Newton thought he heard Hooke accept his theory of colours. He was emboldened to bring forth a second paper, an examination of the colour phenomena in thin films, which was identical to most of Book Two as it later appeared in the Opticks. The purpose of the paper was to explain the colours of solid bodies by showing how light can be analyzed into its components by reflection as well as refraction. His explanation of the colours of bodies has not survived, but the paper was significant in demonstrating for the first time the existence of periodic optical phenomena. He discovered the concentric coloured rings in the thin film of air between a lens and a flat sheet of glass; the distance between these concentric rings (Newton’s rings) depends on the increasing thickness of the film of air. In 1704 Newton combined a revision of his optical lectures with the paper of 1675 and a small amount of additional material in his Opticks.

A second piece which Newton had sent with the paper of 1675 provoked new controversy. Entitled “An Hypothesis Explaining the Properties of Light,” it was in fact a general system of nature. Hooke apparently claimed that Newton had stolen its content from him, and Newton boiled over again. The issue was quickly controlled, however, by an exchange of formal, excessively polite letters that fail to conceal the complete lack of warmth between the men.

Newton was also engaged in another exchange on his theory of colours with a circle of English Jesuits in Liège, perhaps the most revealing exchange of all. Although their objections were shallow, their contention that his experiments were mistaken lashed him into a fury. The correspondence dragged on until 1678, when a final shriek of rage from Newton, apparently accompanied by a complete nervous breakdown, was followed by silence. The death of his mother the following year completed his isolation. For six years he withdrew from intellectual commerce except when others initiated a correspondence, which he always broke off as quickly as possible.

Influence of the Hermetic tradition

During his time of isolation, Newton was greatly influenced by the Hermetic tradition with which he had been familiar since his undergraduate days. Newton, always somewhat interested in alchemy, now immersed himself in it, copying by hand treatise after treatise and collating them to interpret their arcane imagery. Under the influence of the Hermetic tradition, his conception of nature underwent a decisive change. Until that time, Newton had been a mechanical philosopher in the standard 17th-century style, explaining natural phenomena by the motions of particles of matter. Thus, he held that the physical reality of light is a stream of tiny corpuscles diverted from its course by the presence of denser or rarer media. He felt that the apparent attraction of tiny bits of paper to a piece of glass that has been rubbed with cloth results from an ethereal effluvium that streams out of the glass and carries the bits of paper back with it. This mechanical philosophy denied the possibility of action at a distance; as with static electricity, it explained apparent attractions away by means of invisible ethereal mechanisms. Newton’s “Hypothesis of Light” of 1675, with its universal ether, was a standard mechanical system of nature. Some phenomena, such as the capacity of chemicals to react only with certain others, puzzled him, however, and he spoke of a “secret principle” by which substances are “sociable” or “unsociable” with others. About 1679, Newton abandoned the ether and its invisible mechanisms and began to ascribe the puzzling phenomena—chemical affinities, the generation of heat in chemical reactions, surface tension in fluids, capillary action, the cohesion of bodies, and the like—to attractions and repulsions between particles of matter. More than 35 years later, in the second English edition of the Opticks, Newton accepted an ether again, although it was an ether that embodied the concept of action at a distance by positing a repulsion between its particles. The attractions and repulsions of Newton’s speculations were direct transpositions of the occult sympathies and antipathies of Hermetic philosophy—as mechanical philosophers never ceased to protest. Newton, however, regarded them as a modification of the mechanical philosophy that rendered it subject to exact mathematical treatment. As he conceived of them, attractions were quantitatively defined, and they offered a bridge to unite the two basic themes of 17th-century science—the mechanical tradition, which had dealt primarily with verbal mechanical imagery, and the Pythagorean tradition, which insisted on the mathematical nature of reality. Newton’s reconciliation through the concept of force was his ultimate contribution to science.

The Principia of Isaac Newton

Planetary motion

Isaac Newton: The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy

Isaac Newton: The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy

Newton originally applied the idea of attractions and repulsions solely to the range of terrestrial phenomena mentioned in the preceding paragraph. But late in 1679, not long after he had embraced the concept, another application was suggested in a letter from Hooke, who was seeking to renew correspondence. Hooke mentioned his analysis of planetary motion—in effect, the continuous diversion of a rectilinear motion by a central attraction. Newton bluntly refused to correspond but, nevertheless, went on to mention an experiment to demonstrate the rotation of Earth: let a body be dropped from a tower; because the tangential velocity at the top of the tower is greater than that at the foot, the body should fall slightly to the east. He sketched the path of fall as part of a spiral ending at the centre of Earth. This was a mistake, as Hooke pointed out; according to Hooke’s theory of planetary motion, the path should be elliptical, so that if Earth were split and separated to allow the body to fall, it would rise again to its original location. Newton did not like being corrected, least of all by Hooke, but he had to accept the basic point; he corrected Hooke’s figure, however, using the assumption that gravity is constant. Hooke then countered by replying that, although Newton’s figure was correct for constant gravity, his own assumption was that gravity decreases as the square of the distance. Several years later, this letter became the basis for Hooke’s charge of plagiarism. He was mistaken in the charge. His knowledge of the inverse square relation rested only on intuitive grounds; he did not derive it properly from the quantitative statement of centripetal force and Kepler’s third law, which relates the periods of planets to the radii of their orbits. Moreover, unknown to him, Newton had so derived the relation more than 10 years earlier. Nevertheless, Newton later confessed that the correspondence with Hooke led him to demonstrate that an elliptical orbit entails an inverse square attraction to one focus—one of the two crucial propositions on which the law of universal gravitation would ultimately rest. What is more, Hooke’s definition of orbital motion—in which the constant action of an attracting body continuously pulls a planet away from its inertial path—suggested a cosmic application for Newton’s concept of force and an explanation of planetary paths employing it. In 1679 and 1680, Newton dealt only with orbital dynamics; he had not yet arrived at the concept of universal gravitation.

Universal gravitation

Nearly five years later, in August 1684, Newton was visited by the British astronomer Edmond Halley, who was also troubled by the problem of orbital dynamics. Upon learning that Newton had solved the problem, he extracted Newton’s promise to send the demonstration. Three months later he received a short tract entitled De Motu (“On Motion”). Already Newton was at work improving and expanding it. In two and a half years, the tract De Motu grew into Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica, which is not only Newton’s masterpiece but also the fundamental work for the whole of modern science.

Significantly, De Motu did not state the law of universal gravitation. For that matter, even though it was a treatise on planetary dynamics, it did not contain any of the three Newtonian laws of motion. Only when revising De Motu did Newton embrace the principle of inertia (the first law) and arrive at the second law of motion. The second law, the force law, proved to be a precise quantitative statement of the action of the forces between bodies that had become the central members of his system of nature. By quantifying the concept of force, the second law completed the exact quantitative mechanics that has been the paradigm of natural science ever since.

The quantitative mechanics of the Principia is not to be confused with the mechanical philosophy. The latter was a philosophy of nature that attempted to explain natural phenomena by means of imagined mechanisms among invisible particles of matter. The mechanics of the Principia was an exact quantitative description of the motions of visible bodies. It rested on Newton’s three laws of motion: (1) that a body remains in its state of rest unless it is compelled to change that state by a force impressed on it; (2) that the change of motion (the change of velocity times the mass of the body) is proportional to the force impressed; (3) that to every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. The analysis of circular motion in terms of these laws yielded a formula of the quantitative measure, in terms of a body’s velocity and mass, of the centripetal force necessary to divert a body from its rectilinear path into a given circle. When Newton substituted this formula into Kepler’s third law, he found that the centripetal force holding the planets in their given orbits about the Sun must decrease with the square of the planets’ distances from the Sun. Because the satellites of Jupiter also obey Kepler’s third law, an inverse square centripetal force must also attract them to the centre of their orbits. Newton was able to show that a similar relation holds between Earth and its Moon. The distance of the Moon is approximately 60 times the radius of Earth. Newton compared the distance by which the Moon, in its orbit of known size, is diverted from a tangential path in one second with the distance that a body at the surface of Earth falls from rest in one second. When the latter distance proved to be 3,600 (60 × 60) times as great as the former, he concluded that one and the same force, governed by a single quantitative law, is operative in all three cases, and from the correlation of the Moon’s orbit with the measured acceleration of gravity on the surface of Earth, he applied the ancient Latin word gravitas (literally, “heaviness” or “weight”) to it. The law of universal gravitation, which he also confirmed from such further phenomena as the tides and the orbits of comets, states that every particle of matter in the universe attracts every other particle with a force that is proportional to the product of their masses and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between their centres.

Italian-born physicist Dr. Enrico Fermi draws a diagram at a blackboard with mathematical equations. circa 1950.

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When the Royal Society received the completed manuscript of Book I in 1686, Hooke raised the cry of plagiarism, a charge that cannot be sustained in any meaningful sense. On the other hand, Newton’s response to it reveals much about him. Hooke would have been satisfied with a generous acknowledgment; it would have been a graceful gesture to a sick man already well into his decline, and it would have cost Newton nothing. Newton, instead, went through his manuscript and eliminated nearly every reference to Hooke. Such was his fury that he refused either to publish his Opticks or to accept the presidency of the Royal Society until Hooke was dead.

International prominence of Isaac Newton

The Principia immediately raised Newton to international prominence. In their continuing loyalty to the mechanical ideal, Continental scientists rejected the idea of action at a distance for a generation, but even in their rejection they could not withhold their admiration for the technical expertise revealed by the work. Young British scientists spontaneously recognized him as their model. Within a generation the limited number of salaried positions for scientists in England, such as the chairs at Oxford, Cambridge, and Gresham College, were monopolized by the young Newtonians of the next generation. Newton, whose only close contacts with women were his unfulfilled relationship with his mother, who had seemed to abandon him, and his later guardianship of a niece, found satisfaction in the role of patron to the circle of young scientists. His friendship with Fatio de Duillier, a Swiss-born mathematician resident in London who shared Newton’s interests, was the most profound experience of his adult life.

Warden of the mint

Almost immediately following the Principia’s publication, Newton, a fervent if unorthodox Protestant, helped to lead the resistance of Cambridge to James II’s attempt to Catholicize it. As a consequence, he was elected to represent the university in the convention that arranged the revolutionary settlement. In this capacity, he made the acquaintance of a broader group, including the philosopher John Locke. Newton tasted the excitement of London life in the aftermath of the Principia. The great bulk of his creative work had been completed. He was never again satisfied with the academic cloister, and his desire to change was whetted by Fatio’s suggestion that he find a position in London. Seek a place he did, especially through the agency of his friend, the rising politician Charles Montague, later Lord Halifax. Finally, in 1696, he was appointed warden of the mint. Although he did not resign his Cambridge appointments until 1701, he moved to London and henceforth centred his life there.

In the meantime, Newton’s relations with Fatio had undergone a crisis. Fatio was taken seriously ill; then family and financial problems threatened to call him home to Switzerland. Newton’s distress knew no limits. In 1693 he suggested that Fatio move to Cambridge, where Newton would support him, but nothing came of the proposal. Through early 1693 the intensity of Newton’s letters built almost palpably, and then, without surviving explanation, both the close relationship and the correspondence broke off. Four months later, without prior notice, Samuel Pepys and John Locke, both personal friends of Newton, received wild, accusatory letters. Pepys was informed that Newton would see him no more; Locke was charged with trying to entangle him with women. Both men were alarmed for Newton’s sanity; and, in fact, Newton had suffered at least his second nervous breakdown. The crisis passed, and Newton recovered his stability. Only briefly did he ever return to sustained scientific work, however, and the move to London was the effective conclusion of his creative activity.

As warden and then master of the mint, Newton drew a large income, as much as £2,000 per annum. Added to his personal estate, the income left him a rich man at his death. The position, regarded as a sinecure, was treated otherwise by Newton. During the great recoinage, there was need for him to be actively in command; even afterward, however, he chose to exercise himself in the office. Above all, he was interested in counterfeiting. He became the terror of London counterfeiters, sending a goodly number to the gallows and finding in them a socially acceptable target on which to vent the rage that continued to well up within him.

Earth's Place in the Universe. Introduction: The History of the Solar System. Aristotle's Philosophical Universe. Ptolemy's Geocentric Cosmos. Copernicus' Heliocentric System. Kepler's Laws of Planetary Motion.

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history of science: Newton

Interest in religion and theology

Newton found time now to explore other interests, such as religion and theology. In the early 1690s he had sent Locke a copy of a manuscript attempting to prove that Trinitarian passages in the Bible were latter-day corruptions of the original text. When Locke made moves to publish it, Newton withdrew in fear that his anti-Trinitarian views would become known. In his later years, he devoted much time to the interpretation of the prophecies of Daniel and St. John, and to a closely related study of ancient chronology. Both works were published after his death.

Leader of English science

Isaac Newton

Isaac Newton

In London, Newton assumed the role of patriarch of English science. In 1703 he was elected President of the Royal Society. Four years earlier, the French Académie des Sciences (Academy of Sciences) had named him one of eight foreign associates. In 1705 Queen Anne knighted him, the first occasion on which a scientist was so honoured. Newton ruled the Royal Society magisterially. John Flamsteed, the Astronomer Royal, had occasion to feel that he ruled it tyrannically. In his years at the Royal Observatory at Greenwich, Flamsteed, who was a difficult man in his own right, had collected an unrivalled body of data. Newton had received needed information from him for the Principia, and in the 1690s, as he worked on the lunar theory, he again required Flamsteed’s data. Annoyed when he could not get all the information he wanted as quickly as he wanted it, Newton assumed a domineering and condescending attitude toward Flamsteed. As president of the Royal Society, he used his influence with the government to be named as chairman of a body of “visitors” responsible for the Royal Observatory; then he tried to force the immediate publication of Flamsteed’s catalog of stars. The disgraceful episode continued for nearly 10 years. Newton would brook no objections. He broke agreements that he had made with Flamsteed. Flamsteed’s observations, the fruit of a lifetime of work, were, in effect, seized despite his protests and prepared for the press by his mortal enemy, Edmond Halley. Flamsteed finally won his point and by court order had the printed catalog returned to him before it was generally distributed. He burned the printed sheets, and his assistants brought out an authorized version after his death. In this respect, and at considerable cost to himself, Flamsteed was one of the few men to best Newton. Newton sought his revenge by systematically eliminating references to Flamsteed’s help in later editions of the Principia.

Isaac Newton

Isaac Newton

In Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, the German philosopher and mathematician, Newton met a contestant more of his own calibre. It is now well established that Newton developed the calculus before Leibniz seriously pursued mathematics. It is almost universally agreed that Leibniz later arrived at the calculus independently. There has never been any question that Newton did not publish his method of fluxions; thus, it was Leibniz’s paper in 1684 that first made the calculus a matter of public knowledge. In the Principia Newton hinted at his method, but he did not really publish it until he appended two papers to the Opticks in 1704. By then the priority controversy was already smouldering. If, indeed, it mattered, it would be impossible finally to assess responsibility for the ensuing fracas. What began as mild innuendoes rapidly escalated into blunt charges of plagiarism on both sides. Egged on by followers anxious to win a reputation under his auspices, Newton allowed himself to be drawn into the centre of the fray; and, once his temper was aroused by accusations of dishonesty, his anger was beyond constraint. Leibniz’s conduct of the controversy was not pleasant, and yet it paled beside that of Newton. Although he never appeared in public, Newton wrote most of the pieces that appeared in his defense, publishing them under the names of his young men, who never demurred. As president of the Royal Society, he appointed an “impartial” committee to investigate the issue, secretly wrote the report officially published by the society, and reviewed it anonymously in the Philosophical Transactions. Even Leibniz’s death could not allay Newton’s wrath, and he continued to pursue the enemy beyond the grave. The battle with Leibniz, the irrepressible need to efface the charge of dishonesty, dominated the final 25 years of Newton’s life. It obtruded itself continually upon his consciousness. Almost any paper on any subject from those years is apt to be interrupted by a furious paragraph against the German philosopher, as he honed the instruments of his fury ever more keenly. In the end, only Newton’s death ended his wrath.

Final years of Isaac Newton

Isaac Newton

Isaac Newton

During his final years Newton brought out further editions of his central works. After the first edition of the Opticks in 1704, which merely published work done 30 years before, he published a Latin edition in 1706 and a second English edition in 1717–18. In both, the central text was scarcely touched, but he did expand the “Queries” at the end into the final statement of his speculations on the nature of the universe. The second edition of the Principia, edited by Roger Cotes in 1713, introduced extensive alterations. A third edition, edited by Henry Pemberton in 1726, added little more. Until nearly the end, Newton presided at the Royal Society (frequently dozing through the meetings) and supervised the mint. During his last years, his niece, Catherine Barton Conduitt, and her husband lived with him.

ax Karl Ernst Ludwig Planck was born in Kiel, Germany, on April 23, 1858, the son of Julius Wilhelm and Emma (née Patzig) Planck. His father was Professor of Constitutional Law in the University of Kiel, and later in Göttingen.

Planck studied at the Universities of Munich and Berlin, where his teachers included Kirchhoff and Helmholtz, and received his doctorate of philosophy at Munich in 1879. He was Privatdozent in Munich from 1880 to 1885, then Associate Professor of Theoretical Physics at Kiel until 1889, in which year he succeeded Kirchhoff as Professor at Berlin University, where he remained until his retirement in 1926. Afterwards he became President of the Kaiser Wilhelm Society for the Promotion of Science, a post he held until 1937. The Prussian Academy of Sciences appointed him a member in 1894 and Permanent Secretary in 1912.

Planck’s earliest work was on the subject of thermodynamics, an interest he acquired from his studies under Kirchhoff, whom he greatly admired, and very considerably from reading R. Clausius’ publications. He published papers on entropy, on thermoelectric ity and on the theory of dilute solutions.

At the same time also the problems of radiation processes engaged his attention and he showed that these were to be considered as electromagnetic in nature. From these studies he was led to the problem of the distribution of energy in the spectrum of full radiation. Experimental observations on the wavelength distribution of the energy emitted by a black body as a function of temperature were at variance with the predictions of classical physics. Planck was able to deduce the relationship between the ener gy and the frequency of radiation. In a paper published in 1900, he announced his derivation of the relationship: this was based on the revolutionary idea that the energy emitted by a resonator could only take on discrete values or quanta. The energy for a resonator of frequency v is hv where h is a universal constant, now called Planck’s constant.

This was not only Planck’s most important work but also marked a turning point in the history of physics. The importance of the discovery, with its far-reaching effect on classical physics, was not appreciated at first. However the evidence for its validi ty gradually became overwhelming as its application accounted for many discrepancies between observed phenomena and classical theory. Among these applications and developments may be mentioned Einstein’s explanation of the photoelectric effect.

Planck’s work on the quantum theory, as it came to be known, was published in the Annalen der Physik. His work is summarized in two books Thermodynamik (Thermodynamics) (1897) and Theorie der Wärmestrahlung (Theory of heat radiat ion) (1906).

He was elected to Foreign Membership of the Royal Society in 1926, being awarded the Society’s Copley Medal in 1928.

Planck faced a troubled and tragic period in his life during the period of the Nazi government in Germany, when he felt it his duty to remain in his country but was openly opposed to some of the Government’s policies, particularly as regards the persecuti on of the Jews. In the last weeks of the war he suffered great hardship after his home was destroyed by bombing.

He was revered by his colleagues not only for the importance of his discoveries but for his great personal qualities. He was also a gifted pianist and is said to have at one time considered music as a career.

Planck was twice married. Upon his appointment, in 1885, to Associate Professor in his native town Kiel he married a friend of his childhood, Marie Merck, who died in 1909. He remarried her cousin Marga von Hösslin. Three of his children died young, leaving him with two sons.

He suffered a personal tragedy when one of them was executed for his part in an unsuccessful attempt to assassinate Hitler in 1944.

He died at Göttingen on October 4, 1947.

Max Planck changed physics and our understanding of the world forever when he discovered that hot objects do not radiate a smooth, continuous range of energies as had been assumed in classical physics. Instead, he found that the energies radiated by hot objects have distinct values, with all other values forofferden. This discovery was the beginning of quantum theory – an entirely new type of physics – which replaced classical physics for atomic scale events.

Quantum theory revolutionized our understanding of atomic and subatomic processes, just as Albert Einstein’s theories of relativity revolutionized our understanding of gravity, space, and time. Together these theories constitute the most spectacular breakthroughs of twentieth-century physics.

Of high intelligence, showing brilliance in mathematics, science, and music, Planck was a deeply thoughtful, ethical man. He experienced a long life, living almost 90 years. In his later years he lived in Germany through the great depression and both world wars, suffering a succession of personal tragedies.


Max Karl Ernst Ludwig Planck was born in Kiel, on the north coast of Germany, on April 23, 1858. He had five older siblings.

His father, Johann Planck, was a law professor who came from an academic family. Max’s mother’s name was Emma Patzig. Her father was an accountant. Emma was lively and well-liked in the academic circles Max’s family moved in.

Max attended elementary school in Kiel. In 1867, when he was 9 years old, his family relocated over 500 miles to Munich in southern Germany, where his father had been offered a tempting professorship.

Max enrolled at the Maximilians Gymnasium – a school for academically able children. One of his teachers, the mathematician Hermann Müller, noticed Max was rather gifted mathematically, so he offered him extra lessons in astronomy and mechanics. Max accepted the offer enthusiastically, and Müller taught his receptive young student how to visualize the laws of physics in his mind – a vital weapon in the armory of the great physicists.

Frequently it happens that students who are talented mathematically are also talented musically, and this was the case with Max Planck, who composed classical music, had perfect pitch, and played the cello and piano expertly. As if that were not enough, he also had a beautiful singing voice.

Before he left high school, Planck decided he would pursue science as a vocation while music would remain an enjoyable hobby. He would later recall why he chose to become a man of science:

“as a direct result of the discovery that pure reasoning can enable man to gain an insight into the mechanism of the world about us.”

University and a Ph.D. at age 21

In 1874, age 17, and now a freshman at the University of Munich, Planck spoke to Professor Philipp von Jolly about the merits physics. Jolly famously replied:

Philipp von Jolly“In this field [physics] almost everything is already discovered, and all that remains is to fill a few insignificant gaps.”



Undeterred, Planck chose to study physics. One day he was destined to find evidence to prove the absurdity of his professor’s beliefs. In fairness to Philipp von Jolly – and although it’s hard to believe today given the rapid march of science and technology – many physicists of that era shared Jolly’s view: they believed they had already discovered and understood most of what there was in the universe to be discovered and understood!

At university Planck discovered he did not enjoy experimental work. His mathematical talent found its natural home in the world of theoretical physics.

He continued to enjoy music. He sang in the university choir and composed a mini-opera.

An Important Vacation

During the spring vacation of 1877, close to his twentieth birthday, Planck embarked on a hiking tour in northern Italy with university friends including the mathematician Carl Runge. While walking, the students discussed science, mathematics, and their views of the world.

Lake Come

Lake Como in northern Italy, one of the places Max Planck and his friends walked. Hiking amid spectacular scenery became one of Planck’s lifelong pleasures.

Runge raised a question about whether Christianity and religion did more harm than good – a question that shocked Planck, who had received a traditional Lutheran upbringing. Planck began to question his personal view of the world. He remained a Lutheran throughout his life and rejected atheism, but became very tolerant of alternative philosophies and religions.

Berlin and Thermodynamics

In the winter semester of 1877, age 20, Planck transferred for a year to Berlin’s Friedrich Wilhelms University where he was taught by two of the giants of physics – Hermann von Helmholtz and Gustav Kirchhoff.

In Planck’s opinion, each of these renowned men of science delivered lectures distinguished only by their dreariness.

Nevertheless, he and Helmholtz became great friends. Planck admired – indeed almost worshiped – Helmoltz for his scientific integrity, honesty, kindness, modesty, and tolerance.

One of Helmholtz’s passions in physics was thermodynamics – the study of the relationships between temperature, heat, energy, and work. Planck grew increasingly fascinated by thermodynamic theory.

He began his own program of work in the field, spending endless hours poring over papers written by Rudolf Clausius, one of thermodynamics’ founders.

Unlike the lectures he attended, he found Clausius’s work to be interesting, well-delivered, and clear.

The Highest Honors and a First Job

After his year in Berlin, Planck returned to Munich in late 1878 where he passed his state exam allowing him to teach physics in high schools.

A few months later, in February 1879, he submitted a doctoral thesis concerning the second law of thermodynamics. Three months later he defended his thesis in an oral examination and – age 21 – was awarded a Ph.D. in physics with the highest honors – summa cum laude.

Funnily enough, from the questions he was asked during his thesis defense, Planck drew the conclusion that none of the professors who interrogated him understood his thesis!

A year later Planck successfully submitted a further thermodynamics thesis for his habilitation – a much more demanding qualification than the Ph.D., which allowed its holder to become a professor if such a job became available.

At age 22, Planck became a physics lecturer (unpaid) at the University of Munich. Without any salary, he continued living with his parents. His research focused on entropy – a quantity sometimes defined in a loose sense as a measure of the amount of disorder at the atomic level.

A Return to his Birthplace, then back to Berlin

Finally, almost on his 27th birthday, Planck became an associate professor of theoretical physics at the University of Kiel, where he probed ever more deeply into thermodynamics. He continued making progress in this difficult field, but made no major breakthroughs.

At age 31, in April 1889, Planck returned to Berlin to take over the lecturing duties of Gustav Kirchhoff, who had died in the fall of 1887.

In 1892 Planck became a full professor of theoretical physics. By all accounts his students found his lectures much more interesting than Planck had found his predecessor’s. One of his students, the British chemist James Partington, described Planck’s lectures:

“using no notes, never making mistakes, never faltering; the best lecturer I ever heard. There were always many standing around the room. As the lecture-room was well heated and rather close, some of the listeners would from time to time drop to the floor, but this did not disturb the lecture”.

Two of Planck’s Ph.D. students would later win Nobel Prizes in physics: Max von Laue and Walther Bothe.

The scene was now set for Planck’s momentous discovery – quantum theory.

Max Planck’s Contributions to Science

Most theoretical physicists make their mark when they are young. Max Planck was 42 when he finally left an indelible mark on the world.

The problem he solved in 1900 was prompted by puzzlement over the electromagnetic spectrum emitted by hot objects.

Classical Physics Disagrees with Reality

When things get hot they radiate energy. For example, if you were to observe a blacksmith heating a horseshoe, you’d notice that when the shoe gets hot it glows a red color, and when it gets even hotter it glows white.

blacksmith hot metal

Hot metal glows, emitting electromagnetic radiation.

Physicists considered the case of a black body – a body which absorbs all electromagnetic radiation that falls on it. When it is heated, a black body radiates energy in the form of electromagnetic waves. These waves have a broad range of wavelengths such as visible, ultraviolet, and infrared light.

BUT, in the 1800s people noticed the colors of light radiated in experiments did not agree with those predicted by theory. In scientific language, there was a mismatch between the wavelengths radiated by hot objects and the wavelengths predicted by classical theories of thermodynamics.

The graph below shows the problem. The black curve shows the predicted behavior of a black body at a temperature of 5000 K. The blue line shows the actual behavior.

Black-body Radiation Intensity vs Wavelength

black-body curves

Compare the curve expected from classical thermodynamic theory at a temperature of 5000 K (black line) versus that observed in experiments (blue line). They are very different! Also shown in green and red are curves at somewhat lower temperatures.

Quantum Theory

In order to match theory with observations Planck made a revolutionary proposal. If you’re not already familiar with quantum theory, to understand what he proposed, it might help to think about a times table – for example the three times table – 3, 6, 9, 12, 15… in which only numbers divisible by 3 are allowed and all other numbers are forofferden.

Planck’s idea was that energy is emitted in a similar manner. He proposed that only certain amounts of energy could be emitted – i.e. quanta. Classical physics held that all values of energy were possible.

This was the birth of quantum theory. Planck found that his new theory, based on quanta of energy, accurately predicted the wavelengths of light radiated by a black body.

Planck found the energy carried by electromagnetic radiation must be divisible by a number now called Planck’s constant, represented by the letter h. Energy could then be calculated from the equation:

E = hν

where E is energy, h is Planck’s constant, and ν is the frequency of the electromagnetic radiation. Planck’s constant is a very, very small quantity indeed. Its small size explains why the experimentalists of the time had not realized that electromagnetic energy is quantized. To four significant figures, Planck’s constant is 6.626 x 10-34 J s.

Planck had not intended to overthrow classical physics. His intention was to find a theory that matched experimental observations. Nevertheless, the implications of his discovery were momentous. Quantum theory – the realization that nature has ‘allowed’ and ‘forofferden’ states – had been born and the way we interpret nature would never be the same again.

Planck was awarded the 1918 Nobel Prize in Physics for:

“the services he rendered to the advancement of Physics by his discovery of energy quanta.”

Planck himself would later write:

max planck“…it seemed so incompatible with the traditional view of the universe provided by Physics that it eventually destroyed the framework of this older view. For a time it seemed that a complete collapse of classical Physics was not beyond the bounds of possibility; gradually, however, it appeared, as had been confidently expected by all who believed in the steady advance of science, that the introduction of Quantum Theory led not to the destruction of Physics, but to a somewhat profound reconstruction…”


The universe in the light of modern physics

The Planck Scale

The Planck Scale was born in 1899. It replaced the Earth-centered measurement system of:

a kilogram – the mass of a liter of water

a meter – one ten-millionth of the distance from the North Pole to the Equator

a second – 1⁄86400 of an Earth day

with new, universal units based on:

the speed of light

the Planck constant

the gravitational constant

In the following century Stephen Hawking discovered that the Planck scale really does measure something fundamental about nature, showing that the smallest possible black hole has a mass of 1 Planck mass unit, a Schwarzschild radius of 1 Planck length unit, and a half-life of 1 Planck time unit.

Moreover, Jacob Bekenstein found that when any black hole takes in a single elementary particle containing 1 bit of information the area of the event horizon increases 1 square Planck length, revealing a remarkable link between the Planck scale and information.

Some Personal Details and the End

In March 1887, age 28, Planck married Marie Merck. The couple had four children: Karl, Grete, Emma, and Erwin.

Tragically, Planck would live to see the death of his wife and all their children. His wife, Marie, died in 1909 from tuberculosis. Karl was killed in battle in 1916 during World War 1. Grete died in childbirth in 1917, then Emma died also in childbirth in 1919. (Their babies survived.) Erwin was executed by the Nazis in 1945 for his suspected part in a plot to kill Adolf Hitler.

Two years after the death of his first wife, Planck married Marga von Hösslin. They had one son, Hermann. Both Marga and Hermann outlived Planck.

Like the famous mathematician David Hilbert, Planck was rather old (74 years of age) when the Nazis came to power in 1933, and he continued living in Germany under the Nazis. Hilbert and Planck deplored the Nazi’s behavior and their policies.

Planck was one of the first scientists to recognize the brilliance of Albert Einstein’s work. He cleared the way for Einstein to move to Berlin to become a professor there in 1914. Later the two would meet up and enjoy themselves tremendously playing music together.

Freeman Dyson“In 1905, when Einstein, than an unknown employee of the Swiss patent office in Bern, sent five revolutionary papers to the physics journal that Planck edited in Berlin, Planck immediately recognized them as works of genius and published them quickly without sending them to referees.”


The New York Review of Books

When the Nazis took control of Germany, Planck was distressed by the need for Einstein and increasing numbers of Jewish scientists to flee from Germany. In 1938 the Nazis took over the Prussian Academy. Planck resigned as the Academy’s president.

At all times, the elderly Planck remained patriotic to Germany, walking a moral tightrope, hoping that the Nazis would come to their senses and act in a way befitting a proper German government. His hopes were increasingly dashed, culminating with the execution of his son Erwin for ‘treason’ in January 1945.

Early in 1944, Planck’s home in Berlin was flattened in an allied air raid. All his personal papers and scientific records were destroyed.

When the war in Europe ended in May 1945, Planck, his wife, and his remaining son Hermann found refuge with a relative in the famous German university town of Göttingen. It was there that two years later Max Planck died, age 89, on October 4, 1947. Today he lies buried in Göttingen’s old City Cemetery. Marga’s and Hermann’s graves lie beside his.

In 1948, Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm Society was renamed, becoming The Max Planck Society as a tribute to the man who held its presidency twice and gave birth to quantum theory. Today The Max Planck Society is one of the most successful scientific organizations in the world, running over 80 scientific institutions. Since the 1950s research workers from the Max Planck Institutes have been awarded four Nobel Prizes in physics, eight in chemistry, and six in medicine.

max planck“The laws of Physics have no consideration for the human senses; they depend on the facts, and not upon the obviousness of the facts.”

The Nobel Prizes (/noʊˈbɛl/ noh-BEL; Swedish: Nobelpriset [nʊˈbɛ̂lːˌpriːsɛt]; Norwegian: Nobelprisen [nʊˈbɛ̀lːˌpriːsn̩]) are five separate prizes that, according to Alfred Nobel's will of 1895, are awarded to "those who, during the preceding year, have conferred the greatest benefit to humankind." Alfred Nobel was a Swedish chemist, engineer, and industrialist most famously known for the invention of dynamite. He died in 1896. In his will, he bequeathed all of his "remaining realisable assets" to be used to establish five prizes which became known as "Nobel Prizes." Nobel Prizes were first awarded in 1901.[2]

Nobel Prizes are awarded in the fields of Physics, Chemistry, Physiology or Medicine, Literature, and Peace (Nobel characterized the Peace Prize as "to the person who has done the most or best to advance fellowship among nations, the abolition or reduction of standing armies, and the establishment and promotion of peace congresses").[2] In 1968, Sveriges Riksbank (Sweden's central bank) funded the establishment of the Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel, to also be administered by the Nobel Foundation.[2][3][4] Nobel Prizes are widely regarded as the most prestigious awards available in their respective fields.[5][6]

The prize ceremonies take place annually. Each recipient (known as a "laureate") receives a green gold (aka "electrum") medal plated with 24 karat gold, a diploma, and a monetary award. In 2021, the Nobel Prize monetary award is 10,000,000 SEK.[7] A prize may not be shared among more than three individuals, although the Nobel Peace Prize can be awarded to organizations of more than three people.[8] Although Nobel Prizes are not awarded posthumously, if a person is awarded a prize and dies before receiving it, the prize is presented.[9]

The Nobel Prizes, beginning in 1901, and the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences, beginning in 1969, have been awarded 609 times to 975 people and 25 organizations. Five individuals and two organisations have received more than one Nobel Prize.[10]


A black and white photo of a bearded man in his fifties sitting in a chair.

Alfred Nobel had the unpleasant surprise of reading his own obituary, which was titled "The Merchant of Death Is Dead", in a French newspaper.

Alfred Nobel was born on 21 October 1833 in Stockholm, Sweden, into a family of engineers.[11] He was a chemist, engineer, and inventor. In 1894, Nobel purchased the Bofors iron and steel mill, which he made into a major armaments manufacturer. Nobel also invented ballistite. This invention was a precursor to many smokeless military explosives, especially the British smokeless powder cordite. As a consequence of his patent claims, Nobel was eventually involved in a patent infringement lawsuit over cordite. Nobel amassed a fortune during his lifetime, with most of his wealth coming from his 355 inventions, of which dynamite is the most famous.[12]

In 1888, Nobel was astonished to read his own obituary, titled "The Merchant of Death Is Dead", in a French newspaper. It was Alfred's brother Ludvig who had died; the obituary was eight years premature. The article disconcerted Nobel and made him apprehensive about how he would be remembered. This inspired him to change his will.[13] On 10 December 1896, Alfred Nobel died in his villa in San Remo, Italy, from a cerebral haemorrhage. He was 63 years old.[14]

Nobel wrote several wills during his lifetime. He composed the last over a year before he died, signing it at the Swedish–Norwegian Club in Paris on 27 November 1895.[15][16] To widespread astonishment, Nobel's last will specified that his fortune be used to create a series of prizes for those who confer the "greatest benefit on mankind" in physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature, and peace.[17] Nobel bequeathed 94% of his total assets, 31 million SEK (c. US$186 million, €150 million in 2008), to establish the five Nobel Prizes.[18][19] Owing to skepticism surrounding the will, it was not approved by the Storting in Norway until 26 April 1897.[20] The executors of the will, Ragnar Sohlman and Rudolf Lilljequist, formed the Nobel Foundation to take care of the fortune and to organise the awarding of prizes.[21]

Nobel's instructions named a Norwegian Nobel Committee to award the Peace Prize, the members of whom were appointed shortly after the will was approved in April 1897. Soon thereafter, the other prize-awarding organizations were designated. These were Karolinska Institute on 7 June, the Swedish Academy on 9 June, and the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences on 11 June.[22] The Nobel Foundation reached an agreement on guidelines for how the prizes should be awarded; and, in 1900, the Nobel Foundation's newly created statutes were promulgated by King Oscar II.[17] In 1905, the personal union between Sweden and Norway was dissolved.

Nobel Foundation

Formation of Foundation

Main article: Nobel Foundation

A paper with stylish handwriting on it with the title "Testament"

Alfred Nobel's will stated that 94% of his total assets should be used to establish the Nobel Prizes.

According to his will and testament read in Stockholm on 30 December 1896, a foundation established by Alfred Nobel would reward those who serve humanity. The Nobel Prize was funded by Alfred Nobel's personal fortune. According to the official sources, Alfred Nobel bequeathed most of his fortune to the Nobel Foundation that now forms the economic base of the Nobel Prize.[23]

The Nobel Foundation was founded as a private organization on 29 June 1900. Its function is to manage the finances and administration of the Nobel Prizes.[24] In accordance with Nobel's will, the primary task of the foundation is to manage the fortune Nobel left. Robert and Ludvig Nobel were involved in the oil business in Azerbaijan, and according to Swedish historian E. Bargengren, who accessed the Nobel family archive, it was this "decision to allow withdrawal of Alfred's money from Baku that became the decisive factor that enabled the Nobel Prizes to be established".[25] Another important task of the Nobel Foundation is to market the prizes internationally and to oversee informal administration related to the prizes. The foundation is not involved in the process of selecting the Nobel laureates.[26][27] In many ways, the Nobel Foundation is similar to an investment company, in that it invests Nobel's money to create a solid funding base for the prizes and the administrative activities. The Nobel Foundation is exempt from all taxes in Sweden (since 1946) and from investment taxes in the United States (since 1953).[28] Since the 1980s, the foundation's investments have become more profitable and as of 31 December 2007, the assets controlled by the Nobel Foundation amounted to 3.628 billion Swedish kronor (c. US$560 million).[29]

According to the statutes, the foundation consists of a board of five Swedish or Norwegian citizens, with its seat in Stockholm. The Chairman of the Board is appointed by the Swedish King in Council, with the other four members appointed by the trustees of the prize-awarding institutions. An Executive Director is chosen from among the board members, a deputy director is appointed by the King in Council, and two deputies are appointed by the trustees. However, since 1995, all the members of the board have been chosen by the trustees, and the executive director and the deputy director appointed by the board itself. As well as the board, the Nobel Foundation is made up of the prize-awarding institutions (the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, the Nobel Assembly at Karolinska Institute, the Swedish Academy, and the Norwegian Nobel Committee), the trustees of these institutions, and auditors.[29]

Foundation capital and cost

The capital of the Nobel Foundation today is invested 50% in shares, 20% bonds and 30% other investments (e.g. hedge funds or real estate). The distribution can vary by 10 percent.[30] At the beginning of 2008, 64% of the funds were invested mainly in American and European stocks, 20% in bonds, plus 12% in real estate and hedge funds.[31]

In 2011, the total annual cost was approximately 120 million kronor, with 50 million kronor as the prize money. Further costs to pay institutions and persons engaged in giving the prizes were 27.4 million kronor. The events during the Nobel week in Stockholm and Oslo cost 20.2 million kronor. The administration, Nobel symposium, and similar items had costs of 22.4 million kronor. The cost of the Economic Sciences prize of 16.5 Million kronor is paid by the Sveriges Riksbank.[30]

Inaugural Nobel prizes

A black and white photo of a bearded man in his fifties sitting in a chair.

Wilhelm Röntgen received the first Physics Prize for his discovery of X-rays.

Once the Nobel Foundation and its guidelines were in place, the Nobel Committees began collecting nominations for the inaugural prizes. Subsequently, they sent a list of preliminary candidates to the prize-awarding institutions.

The Nobel Committee's Physics Prize shortlist cited Wilhelm Röntgen's discovery of X-rays and Philipp Lenard's work on cathode rays. The Academy of Sciences selected Röntgen for the prize.[32][33] In the last decades of the 19th century, many chemists had made significant contributions. Thus, with the Chemistry Prize, the academy "was chiefly faced with merely deciding the order in which these scientists should be awarded the prize".[34] The academy received 20 nominations, eleven of them for Jacobus van 't Hoff.[35] Van 't Hoff was awarded the prize for his contributions in chemical thermodynamics.[36][37]

The Swedish Academy chose the poet Sully Prudhomme for the first Nobel Prize in Literature. A group including 42 Swedish writers, artists, and literary critics protested against this decision, having expected Leo Tolstoy to be awarded.[38] Some, including Burton Feldman, have criticised this prize because they consider Prudhomme a mediocre poet. Feldman's explanation is that most of the academy members preferred Victorian literature and thus selected a Victorian poet.[39] The first Physiology or Medicine Prize went to the German physiologist and microbiologist Emil von Behring. During the 1890s, von Behring developed an antitoxin to treat diphtheria, which until then was causing thousands of deaths each year.[40][41]

The first Nobel Peace Prize went to the Swiss Jean Henri Dunant for his role in founding the International Red Cross Movement and initiating the Geneva Convention, and jointly given to French pacifist Frédéric Passy, founder of the Peace League and active with Dunant in the Alliance for Order and Civilization.

Second World War

In 1938 and 1939, Adolf Hitler's Third Reich forbade three laureates from Germany (Richard Kuhn, Adolf Friedrich Johann Butenandt, and Gerhard Domagk) from accepting their prizes.[42] They were all later able to receive the diploma and medal.[43] Even though Sweden was officially neutral during the Second World War, the prizes were awarded irregularly. In 1939, the Peace Prize was not awarded. No prize was awarded in any category from 1940 to 1942, due to the occupation of Norway by Germany. In the subsequent year, all prizes were awarded except those for literature and peace.[44]

During the occupation of Norway, three members of the Norwegian Nobel Committee fled into exile. The remaining members escaped persecution from the Germans when the Nobel Foundation stated that the committee building in Oslo was Swedish property. Thus it was a safe haven from the German military, which was not at war with Sweden.[45] These members kept the work of the committee going, but did not award any prizes. In 1944, the Nobel Foundation, together with the three members in exile, made sure that nominations were submitted for the Peace Prize and that the prize could be awarded once again.[42]

Prize in Economic Sciences

Main article: Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences

Map of Nobel laureates by country

In 1968, Sweden's central bank Sveriges Riksbank celebrated its 300th anniversary by donating a large sum of money to the Nobel Foundation to be used to set up a prize in honour of Alfred Nobel. The following year, the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel was awarded for the first time. The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences became responsible for selecting laureates. The first laureates for the Economics Prize were Jan Tinbergen and Ragnar Frisch "for having developed and applied dynamic models for the analysis of economic processes".[46][47] The board of the Nobel Foundation decided that after this addition, it would allow no further new prizes.[48]

Award process

The award process is similar for all of the Nobel Prizes, the main difference being who can make nominations for each of them.[49]

The announcement of the laureates in Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2009 by Gunnar Öquist, permanent secretary of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences

2009 Nobel Prize in Literature announcement by Peter Englund in Swedish, English, and German


Nomination forms are sent by the Nobel Committee to about 3,000 individuals, usually in September the year before the prizes are awarded. These individuals are generally prominent academics working in a relevant area. Regarding the Peace Prize, inquiries are also sent to governments, former Peace Prize laureates, and current or former members of the Norwegian Nobel Committee. The deadline for the return of the nomination forms is 31 January of the year of the award.[49][50] The Nobel Committee nominates about 300 potential laureates from these forms and additional names.[51] The nominees are not publicly named, nor are they told that they are being considered for the prize. All nomination records for a prize are sealed for 50 years from the awarding of the prize.[52][53]

Main article: List of Nobel laureates § 50 year secrecy rule


The Nobel Committee then prepares a report reflecting the advice of experts in the relevant fields. This, along with the list of preliminary candidates, is submitted to the prize-awarding institutions.[54] There are four awarding institutions for the six prizes awarded:

Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences – Chemistry; Physics; Economics

Nobel Assembly at the Karolinska Institute – Physiology / Medicine

Swedish Academy – Literature

Norwegian Nobel Committee – Peace

The institutions meet to choose the laureate or laureates in each field by a majority vote. Their decision, which cannot be appealed, is announced immediately after the vote.[55] A maximum of three laureates and two different works may be selected per award. Except for the Peace Prize, which can be awarded to institutions, the awards can only be given to individuals.[56]

Posthumous nominations

Although posthumous nominations are not presently permitted, individuals who died in the months between their nomination and the decision of the prize committee were originally eligible to receive the prize. This has occurred twice: the 1931 Literature Prize awarded to Erik Axel Karlfeldt, and the 1961 Peace Prize awarded to UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld. Since 1974, laureates must be thought alive at the time of the October announcement. There has been one laureate, William Vickrey, who in 1996 died after the prize (in Economics) was announced but before it could be presented.[57] On 3 October 2011, the laureates for the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine were announced; however, the committee was not aware that one of the laureates, Ralph M. Steinman, had died three days earlier. The committee was debating about Steinman's prize, since the rule is that the prize is not awarded posthumously.[9] The committee later decided that as the decision to award Steinman the prize "was made in good faith", it would remain unchanged.[58]

Recognition time lag

Nobel's will provided for prizes to be awarded in recognition of discoveries made "during the preceding year". Early on, the awards usually recognised recent discoveries.[59] However, some of those early discoveries were later discredited. For example, Johannes Fibiger was awarded the 1926 Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his purported discovery of a parasite that caused cancer.[60] To avoid repeating this embarrassment, the awards increasingly recognised scientific discoveries that had withstood the test of time.[61][62][63] According to Ralf Pettersson, former chairman of the Nobel Prize Committee for Physiology or Medicine, "the criterion 'the previous year' is interpreted by the Nobel Assembly as the year when the full impact of the discovery has become evident."[62]

A room with pictures on the walls. In the middle of the room there is a wooden table with chairs around it.

The committee room of the Norwegian Nobel Committee

The interval between the award and the accomplishment it recognises varies from discipline to discipline. The Literature Prize is typically awarded to recognise a cumulative lifetime body of work rather than a single achievement.[64][65] The Peace Prize can also be awarded for a lifetime body of work. For example, 2008 laureate Martti Ahtisaari was awarded for his work to resolve international conflicts.[66][67] However, they can also be awarded for specific recent events.[68] For instance, Kofi Annan was awarded the 2001 Peace Prize just four years after becoming the Secretary-General of the United Nations.[69] Similarly Yasser Arafat, Yitzhak Rabin, and Shimon Peres received the 1994 award, about a year after they successfully concluded the Oslo Accords.[70] A recent controversy was caused by awarding the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize to Barack Obama during his first year as US president.[71][72]

Awards for physics, chemistry, and medicine are typically awarded once the achievement has been widely accepted. Sometimes, this takes decades – for example, Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar shared the 1983 Physics Prize for his 1930s work on stellar structure and evolution.[73][74] Not all scientists live long enough for their work to be recognised. Some discoveries can never be considered for a prize if their impact is realised after the discoverers have died.[75][76][77]

Award ceremonies

Two men standing on a stage. The man to the left is clapping his hands and looking towards the other man. The second man is smiling and showing two items to an audience not seen on the image. The items are a diploma which includes a painting and a box containing a gold medal. Behind them is a blue pillar clad in flowers.

A man in his fifties standing behind a desk with computers on it. On the desk is a sign reading "Kungl. Vetensk. Akad. Sigil".

Right: Giovanni Jona-Lasinio presenting Yoichiro Nambu's Nobel Lecture at Aula Magna, Stockholm in 2008; Left: Barack Obama after receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo City Hall from the hands of Norwegian Nobel Committee Chairman Thorbjørn Jagland in 2009

Except for the Peace Prize, the Nobel Prizes are presented in Stockholm, Sweden, at the annual Prize Award Ceremony on 10 December, the anniversary of Nobel's death. The recipients' lectures are normally held in the days prior to the award ceremony. The Peace Prize and its recipients' lectures are presented at the annual Prize Award Ceremony in Oslo, Norway, usually on 10 December. The award ceremonies and the associated banquets are typically major international events.[78][79] The Prizes awarded in Sweden's ceremonies are held at the Stockholm Concert Hall, with the Nobel banquet following immediately at Stockholm City Hall. The Nobel Peace Prize ceremony has been held at the Norwegian Nobel Institute (1905–1946), at the auditorium of the University of Oslo (1947–1989), and at Oslo City Hall (1990–present).[80]

The highlight of the Nobel Prize Award Ceremony in Stockholm occurs when each Nobel laureate steps forward to receive the prize from the hands of the King of Sweden. In Oslo, the chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee presents the Nobel Peace Prize in the presence of the King of Norway and the Norwegian royal family.[79][81] At first, King Oscar II did not approve of awarding grand prizes to foreigners. It is said[by whom?] that he changed his mind once his attention had been drawn to the publicity value of the prizes for Sweden.[82]

Nobel Banquet

Main article: Nobel Banquet

A set table with a white table cloth. There are many plates and glasses plus a menu visible on the table.

Table at the 2005 Nobel Banquet in Stockholm

After the award ceremony in Sweden, a banquet is held in the Blue Hall at the Stockholm City Hall, which is attended by the Swedish Royal Family and around 1,300 guests. The Nobel Peace Prize banquet is held in Norway at the Oslo Grand Hotel after the award ceremony. Apart from the laureate, guests include the president of the Storting, on occasion the Swedish prime minister, and, since 2006, the King and Queen of Norway. In total, about 250 guests attend.

Nobel lecture

According to the statutes of the Nobel Foundation, each laureate is required to give a public lecture on a subject related to the topic of their prize.[83] The Nobel lecture as a rhetorical genre took decades to reach its current format.[84] These lectures normally occur during Nobel Week (the week leading up to the award ceremony and banquet, which begins with the laureates arriving in Stockholm and normally ends with the Nobel banquet), but this is not mandatory. The laureate is only obliged to give the lecture within six months of receiving the prize, but some have happened even later. For example, US President Theodore Roosevelt received the Peace Prize in 1906 but gave his lecture in 1910, after his term in office.[85] The lectures are organized by the same association which selected the laureates.[86]



The Nobel Foundation announced on 30 May 2012 that it had awarded the contract for the production of the five (Swedish) Nobel Prize medals to Svenska Medalj AB. Between 1902 and 2010, the Nobel Prize medals were minted by Myntverket (the Swedish Mint), Sweden's oldest company, which ceased operations in 2011 after 107 years. In 2011, the Mint of Norway, located in Kongsberg, made the medals. The Nobel Prize medals are registered trademarks of the Nobel Foundation.[87]

Each medal features an image of Alfred Nobel in left profile on the obverse. The medals for physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, and literature have identical obverses, showing the image of Alfred Nobel and the years of his birth and death. Nobel's portrait also appears on the obverse of the Peace Prize medal and the medal for the Economics Prize, but with a slightly different design. For instance, the laureate's name is engraved on the rim of the Economics medal.[88] The image on the reverse of a medal varies according to the institution awarding the prize. The reverse sides of the medals for chemistry and physics share the same design.[89]

A heavily decorated paper with the name "Fritz Haber" on it.

Laureates receive a heavily decorated diploma together with a gold medal and the prize money. Here Fritz Haber's diploma is shown, which he received for the development of a method to synthesise ammonia.

All medals made before 1980 were struck in 23 carat gold. Since then, they have been struck in 18 carat green gold plated with 24 carat gold. The weight of each medal varies with the value of gold, but averages about 175 grams (0.386 lb) for each medal. The diameter is 66 millimetres (2.6 in) and the thickness varies between 5.2 millimetres (0.20 in) and 2.4 millimetres (0.094 in).[90] Because of the high value of their gold content and tendency to be on public display, Nobel medals are subject to medal theft.[91][92][93] During World War II, the medals of German scientists Max von Laue and James Franck were sent to Copenhagen for safekeeping. When Germany invaded Denmark, Hungarian chemist (and Nobel laureate himself) George de Hevesy dissolved them in aqua regia (nitro-hydrochloric acid), to prevent confiscation by Nazi Germany and to prevent legal problems for the holders. After the war, the gold was recovered from solution, and the medals re-cast.[94]


Nobel laureates receive a diploma directly from the hands of the King of Sweden, or in the case of the peace prize, the chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee. Each diploma is uniquely designed by the prize-awarding institutions for the laureates that receive them.[88] The diploma contains a picture and text in Swedish which states the name of the laureate and normally a citation of why they received the prize. None of the Nobel Peace Prize laureates has ever had a citation on their diplomas.[95][96]

Award money

The laureates are given a sum of money when they receive their prizes, in the form of a document confirming the amount awarded.[88] The amount of prize money depends upon how much money the Nobel Foundation can award each year. The purse has increased since the 1980s, when the prize money was 880,000 SEK per prize (c. 2.6 million SEK altogether, US$350,000 today). In 2009, the monetary award was 10 million SEK (US$1.4 million).[97][98] In June 2012, it was lowered to 8 million SEK.[99] If two laureates share the prize in a category, the award grant is divided equally between the recipients. If there are three, the awarding committee has the option of dividing the grant equally, or awarding one-half to one recipient and one-quarter to each of the others.[100][101][102] It is common for recipients to donate prize money to benefit scientific, cultural, or humanitarian causes.[103][104]

Controversies and criticisms

Main article: Nobel Prize controversies

Controversial recipients

When it was announced that Henry Kissinger was to be awarded the Peace Prize, two of the Norwegian Nobel Committee members resigned in protest.

Among other criticisms, the Nobel Committees have been accused of having a political agenda, and of omitting more deserving candidates. They have also been accused of Eurocentrism, especially for the Literature Prize.[105][106][107]

Peace Prize

Among the most criticised Nobel Peace Prizes was the one awarded to Henry Kissinger and Lê Đức Thọ. This led to the resignation of two Norwegian Nobel Committee members.[108] Kissinger and Thọ were awarded the prize for negotiating a ceasefire between North Vietnam and the United States in January 1973 during the Vietnam War. However, when the award was announced, both sides were still engaging in hostilities.[109] Critics sympathetic to the North announced that Kissinger was not a peace-maker but the opposite, responsible for widening the war. Those hostile to the North and what they considered its deceptive practices during negotiations were deprived of a chance to criticise Lê Đức Thọ, as he declined the award.[52][110] The satirist and musician Tom Lehrer has remarked that "political satire became obsolete when Henry Kissinger was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize."[111]

Yasser Arafat, Shimon Peres, and Yitzhak Rabin received the Peace Prize in 1994 for their efforts in making peace between Israel and Palestine.[52][112] Immediately after the award was announced, one of the five Norwegian Nobel Committee members denounced Arafat as a terrorist and resigned.[113] Additional misgivings about Arafat were widely expressed in various newspapers.[114]

Another controversial Peace Prize was that awarded to Barack Obama in 2009.[115] Nominations had closed only eleven days after Obama took office as President of the United States, but the actual evaluation occurred over the next eight months.[116] Obama himself stated that he did not feel deserving of the award, or worthy of the company in which it would place him.[117][118] Past Peace Prize laureates were divided, some saying that Obama deserved the award, and others saying he had not secured the achievements to yet merit such an accolade. Obama's award, along with the previous Peace Prizes for Jimmy Carter and Al Gore, also prompted accusations of a liberal bias.[119]

Literature Prize

The award of the 2004 Literature Prize to Elfriede Jelinek drew a protest from a member of the Swedish Academy, Knut Ahnlund. Ahnlund resigned, alleging that the selection of Jelinek had caused "irreparable damage to all progressive forces, it has also confused the general view of literature as an art". He alleged that Jelinek's works were "a mass of text shovelled together without artistic structure".[120][121] The 2009 Literature Prize to Herta Müller also generated criticism. According to The Washington Post, many US literary critics and professors were ignorant of her work.[122] This made those critics feel the prizes were too Eurocentric.[123] The 2019 Literature Prize to Peter Handke received heavy criticisms from various authors, such as Salman Rushdie and Hari Kunzru, and was condemned by the governments of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, and Turkey, due to his history of Bosnian genocide denialism and his support for Slobodan Milošević.[124][125][126]

Science prizes

In 1949, the neurologist António Egas Moniz received the Physiology or Medicine Prize for his development of the prefrontal leucotomy. The previous year, Dr. Walter Freeman had developed a version of the procedure which was faster and easier to carry out. Due in part to the publicity surrounding the original procedure, Freeman's procedure was prescribed without due consideration or regard for modern medical ethics. Endorsed by such influential publications as The New England Journal of Medicine, leucotomy or "lobotomy" became so popular that about 5,000 lobotomies were performed in the United States in the three years immediately following Moniz's receipt of the Prize.[127][128]

Overlooked achievements

Mahatma Gandhi, although nominated five times, was never awarded a Nobel Peace Prize.

Although Mahatma Gandhi, an icon of nonviolence in the 20th century, was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize five times, in 1937, 1938, 1939, 1947, and a few days before he was assassinated on 30 January 1948, he was never awarded the prize.[129][130][131]

In 1948, the year of Gandhi's death, the Norwegian Nobel Committee decided to make no award that year on the grounds that "there was no suitable living candidate".[129][132]

In 1989, this omission was publicly regretted, when the 14th Dalai Lama was awarded the Peace Prize, the chairman of the committee said that it was "in part a tribute to the memory of Mahatma Gandhi".[133]

Geir Lundestad, 2006 Secretary of Norwegian Nobel Committee, said,

The greatest omission in our 106 year history is undoubtedly that Mahatma Gandhi never received the Nobel Peace Prize. Gandhi could do without the Nobel Peace Prize. Whether the Nobel committee can do without Gandhi, is the question.[134][135]

Other high-profile individuals with widely recognised contributions to peace have been overlooked. In 2009, an article in Foreign Policy magazine identified seven people who "never won the prize, but should have". The list consisted of Gandhi, Eleanor Roosevelt, Václav Havel, Ken Saro-Wiwa, Sari Nusseibeh, Corazon Aquino, and Liu Xiaobo.[131] Liu Xiaobo would go on to win the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize while imprisoned.

In 1965, UN Secretary General U Thant was informed by the Norwegian Permanent Representative to the UN that he would be awarded that year's prize and asked whether or not he would accept. He consulted staff and later replied that he would. At the same time, Chairman Gunnar Jahn of the Nobel Peace prize committee, lobbied heavily against giving U Thant the prize and the prize was at the last minute awarded to UNICEF. The rest of the committee all wanted the prize to go to U Thant, for his work in defusing the Cuban Missile Crisis, ending the war in the Congo, and his ongoing work to mediate an end to the Vietnam War. The disagreement lasted three years and in 1966 and 1967 no prize was given, with Gunnar Jahn effectively vetoing an award to U Thant.[136][137]

James Joyce, one of the controversial omissions of the Literature Prize

The Literature Prize also has controversial omissions. Adam Kirsch has suggested that many notable writers have missed out on the award for political or extra-literary reasons. The heavy focus on European and Swedish authors has been a subject of criticism.[138][139] The Eurocentric nature of the award was acknowledged by Peter Englund, the 2009 Permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy, as a problem with the award and was attributed to the tendency for the academy to relate more to European authors.[140] This tendency towards European authors still leaves many European writers on a list of notable writers that have been overlooked for the Literature Prize, including Leo Tolstoy, Anton Chekhov, J. R. R. Tolkien, Émile Zola, Marcel Proust, Vladimir Nabokov, James Joyce, August Strindberg, Simon Vestdijk, Karel Čapek, the New World's Jorge Luis Borges, Ezra Pound, John Updike, Arthur Miller, Mark Twain, and Africa's Chinua Achebe.[141]

Candidates can receive multiple nominations the same year. Gaston Ramon received a total of 155[142] nominations in physiology or medicine from 1930 to 1953, the last year with public nomination data for that award as of 2016. He died in 1963 without being awarded. Pierre Paul Émile Roux received 115[143] nominations in physiology or medicine, and Arnold Sommerfeld received 84[144] in physics. These are the three most nominated scientists without awards in the data published as of 2016.[145] Otto Stern received 79[146] nominations in physics 1925–1943 before being awarded in 1943.[147]

The strict rule against awarding a prize to more than three people is also controversial.[148] When a prize is awarded to recognise an achievement by a team of more than three collaborators, one or more will miss out. For example, in 2002, the prize was awarded to Koichi Tanaka and John Fenn for the development of mass spectrometry in protein chemistry, an award that did not recognise the achievements of Franz Hillenkamp and Michael Karas of the Institute for Physical and Theoretical Chemistry at the University of Frankfurt.[149][150]

According to one of the nominees for the prize in physics, the three person limit deprived him and two other members of his team of the honor in 2013: the team of Carl Hagen, Gerald Guralnik, and Tom Kibble published a paper in 1964 that gave answers to how the cosmos began, but did not share the 2013 Physics Prize awarded to Peter Higgs and François Englert, who had also published papers in 1964 concerning the subject. All five physicists arrived at the same conclusion, albeit from different angles. Hagen contends that an equitable solution is to either abandon the three limit restriction, or expand the time period of recognition for a given achievement to two years.[151]

Similarly, the prohibition of posthumous awards fails to recognise achievements by an individual or collaborator who dies before the prize is awarded. The Economics Prize was not awarded to Fischer Black, who died in 1995, when his co-author Myron Scholes received the honor in 1997 for their landmark work on option pricing along with Robert C. Merton, another pioneer in the development of valuation of stock options. In the announcement of the award that year, the Nobel committee prominently mentioned Black's key role.

Political subterfuge may also deny proper recognition. Lise Meitner and Fritz Strassmann, who co-discovered nuclear fission along with Otto Hahn, may have been denied a share of Hahn's 1944 Nobel Chemistry Award due to having fled Germany when the Nazis came to power.[152] The Meitner and Strassmann roles in the research was not fully recognised until years later, when they joined Hahn in receiving the 1966 Enrico Fermi Award.

Emphasis on discoveries over inventions

Alfred Nobel left his fortune to finance annual prizes to be awarded "to those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind".[153] He stated that the Nobel Prizes in Physics should be given "to the person who shall have made the most important 'discovery' or 'invention' within the field of physics". Nobel did not emphasise discoveries, but they have historically been held in higher respect by the Nobel Prize Committee than inventions: 77% of the Physics Prizes have been given to discoveries, compared with only 23% to inventions. Christoph Bartneck and Matthias Rauterberg, in papers published in Nature and Technoetic Arts, have argued this emphasis on discoveries has moved the Nobel Prize away from its original intention of rewarding the greatest contribution to society.[154][155]

Gender disparity

There have been a total of 57 women Nobel laureates compared to 873 men. Most female laureates received them in the peace and literature categories. Marie Curie was the first woman to receive the Nobel Prize in 1903, and the only woman to receive it twice.

See also: List of female Nobel laureates and List of female nominees for the Nobel Prize

In terms of the most prestigious awards in STEM fields, only a small proportion have been awarded to women. Out of 210 laureates in Physics, 181 in Chemistry and 216 in Medicine between 1901 and 2018, there were only three female laureates in physics, five in chemistry and 12 in medicine.[156][157][158][159] Factors proposed to contribute to the discrepancy between this and the roughly equal human sex ratio include biased nominations, fewer women than men being active in the relevant fields, Nobel Prizes typically being awarded decades after the research was done (reflecting a time when gender bias in the relevant fields was greater), a greater delay in awarding Nobel Prizes for women's achievements making longevity a more important factor for women (one cannot be nominated for the Nobel Prize posthumously), and a tendency to omit women from jointly awarded Nobel Prizes.[160][161][162][163][164][165] Despite these factors, Marie Curie is to date the only person awarded Nobel Prizes in two different sciences (Physics in 1903, Chemistry in 1911); she is one of only three people who have received two Nobel Prizes in sciences (see Multiple laureates below). Malala Yousafzai is the youngest person ever to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. When she received it in 2014, she was only 17 years old.[166]

Status of the Economic Sciences Prize

Peter Nobel describes the Bank of Sweden Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel as a "false Nobel prize" that dishonours his relative Alfred Nobel, after whom the prize is named, and considers economics to be a pseudoscience.[167][168]


Youngest person to receive a Nobel Prize:

Malala Yousafzai; at the age of 17, received Nobel Peace Prize (2014).

Oldest person to receive a Nobel Prize:

John B. Goodenough; at the age of 97, received Nobel Prize in Chemistry (2019).

Only person to receive more than one unshared Nobel Prize:

Linus Pauling; received the prize twice. Nobel Prize in Chemistry (1954) and Nobel Peace Prize (1962).

Country with most Nobel laureates:

Main article: List of Nobel laureates by country

United States; 403 Nobel laureates, as of 2022.

Laureates who have received multiple Nobel Prizes: (by date of second Prize)

Marie Curie; received the prize twice. Nobel Prize in Physics (1903) and Nobel Prize in Chemistry (1911).

International Committee of the Red Cross; received the prize three times. Nobel Peace Prize (1917, 1944, 1963).

Linus Pauling; received the prize twice. Nobel Prize in Chemistry (1954) and Nobel Peace Prize (1962).

John Bardeen; received the prize twice. Nobel Prize in Physics (1956, 1972).

Frederick Sanger; received the prize twice. Nobel Prize in Chemistry (1958, 1980).

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees; received the prize twice. Nobel Peace Prize (1954, 1981).

Karl Barry Sharpless; received the prize twice. Nobel Prize in Chemistry (2001, 2022).

Posthumous Nobel Prizes laureates:

Erik Axel Karlfeldt; received Nobel Prize in Literature (1931).

Dag Hammarskjöld; received Nobel Peace Prize (1961).

Ralph M. Steinman; received Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine (2011).

Married couples to receive Nobel Prizes:[169]

Main article: List of couples awarded the Nobel Prize

Marie Curie, Pierre Curie (along with Henri Becquerel). Received Nobel Prize in Physics (1903).

Irène Joliot-Curie, Frédéric Joliot. Received Nobel Prize in Chemistry (1935).

Gerty Cori, Carl Cori. Received Nobel Prize in Medicine (1947).

Gunnar Myrdal received Nobel Prize in Economics Sciences (1974), Alva Myrdal received Nobel Peace Prize (1982).

May-Britt Moser, Edvard I. Moser. Received Nobel Prize in Medicine (2014)

Esther Duflo, Abhijit Banerjee (along with Michael Kremer). Received Nobel Prize in Economics Sciences (2019).[170]

Years without prizes:

Physics: 1916, 1931, 1934, 1940, 1941, 1942

Chemistry: 1916, 1917, 1919, 1924, 1933, 1940, 1941, 1942

Physiology or Medicine: 1915, 1916, 1917, 1918, 1921, 1925, 1940, 1941, 1942

Literature: 1914, 1918, 1935, 1940, 1941, 1942, 1943

Peace: 1914, 1915, 1916, 1918, 1923, 1924, 1928, 1932, 1939, 1940, 1941, 1942, 1943, 1948, 1955, 1956, 1966, 1967, 1972

Specially distinguished laureates

Multiple laureates

A black and white portrait of a woman in profile.

Marie Curie, one of five people who have received the Nobel Prize twice (Physics and Chemistry)

Five people have received two Nobel Prizes. Marie Curie received the Physics Prize in 1903 for her work on radioactivity and the Chemistry Prize in 1911 for the isolation of pure radium,[171] making her the only person to be awarded a Nobel Prize in two different sciences. Linus Pauling was awarded the 1954 Chemistry Prize for his research into the chemical bond and its application to the structure of complex substances. Pauling was also awarded the Peace Prize in 1962 for his activism against nuclear weapons, making him the only laureate of two unshared prizes. John Bardeen received the Physics Prize twice: in 1956 for the invention of the transistor and in 1972 for the theory of superconductivity.[172] Frederick Sanger received the prize twice in Chemistry: in 1958 for determining the structure of the insulin molecule and in 1980 for inventing a method of determining base sequences in DNA.[173][174] Karl Barry Sharpless was awarded the 2001 Chemistry Prize for his research into chirally catalysed oxidation reactions, and the 2022 Chemistry Prize for click chemistry.

Two organizations have received the Peace Prize multiple times. The International Committee of the Red Cross received it three times: in 1917 and 1944 for its work during the world wars; and in 1963 during the year of its centenary.[175][176][177] The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has been awarded the Peace Prize twice for assisting refugees: in 1954 and 1981.[178]

Family laureates

The Curie family has received the most prizes, with four prizes awarded to five individual laureates. Marie Curie received the prizes in Physics (in 1903) and Chemistry (in 1911). Her husband, Pierre Curie, shared the 1903 Physics prize with her.[179] Their daughter, Irène Joliot-Curie, received the Chemistry Prize in 1935 together with her husband Frédéric Joliot-Curie. In addition, the husband of Marie Curie's second daughter, Henry Labouisse, was the director of UNICEF when he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in 1965 on that organisation's behalf.[180]

Although no family matches the Curie family's record, there have been several with two laureates. The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded to the husband-and-wife team of Gerty Cori and Carl Ferdinand Cori in 1947 Prize,[181] and by the husband-and-wife team of May-Britt Moser and Edvard Moser in 2014 (along with John O'Keefe).[182] The Physics Prize in 1906 was won by J. J. Thomson for showing that electrons are particles, and in 1937 by his son, George Paget Thomson, for showing that they also have the properties of waves.[183] William Henry Bragg and his son, William Lawrence Bragg, shared the Physics Prize in 1915 for inventing X-ray crystallography.[184] Niels Bohr was awarded the Physics Prize in 1922, as was his son, Aage Bohr, in 1975.[180][185][186] The Physics Prize was awarded to Manne Siegbahn in 1924, followed by his son, Kai Siegbahn, in 1981.[180][187] Hans von Euler-Chelpin, who received the Chemistry Prize in 1929, was the father of Ulf von Euler, who was awarded the Physiology or Medicine Prize in 1970.[180] C. V. Raman was awarded the Physics Prize in 1930 and was the uncle of Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, who was awarded the same prize in 1983.[188][189] Arthur Kornberg received the Physiology or Medicine Prize in 1959; Kornberg's son Roger later received the Chemistry Prize in 2006.[190] Arthur Schawlow received the 1981 Physics prize, and was married to the sister of 1964 Physics laureate Charles Townes.[191] Two members of the Hodgkin family received Nobels in consecutive years: Sir Alan Lloyd Hodgkin shared in the Nobel for Physiology or Medicine in 1963, followed by Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin, the wife of his first cousin, who won solo for Chemistry in 1964. Jan Tinbergen, who was awarded the first Economics Prize in 1969, was the brother of Nikolaas Tinbergen, who received the 1973 Physiology or Medicine Prize.[180] Gunnar Myrdal who was awarded the Economics Prize in 1974, was the husband of Alva Myrdal, Peace Prize laureate in 1982.[180] Economics laureates Paul Samuelson and Kenneth Arrow were brothers-in-law. Frits Zernike, who was awarded the 1953 Physics Prize, is the great-uncle of 1999 Physics laureate Gerard 't Hooft.[192] In 2019, married couple Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo were awarded the Economics Prize.[193] Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard was awarded the Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1995, and her nephew Benjamin List received the Chemistry Prize in 2021.[194] Sune Bergström was awarded the Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1982, and his son Svante Pääbo was awarded the same prize in 2022. Edwin McMillan, who was awarded the Prize in Chemistry in 1951, is the uncle of John Clauser, who was awarded the Prize in Physics in 2022.

Refusals and constraints

A black and white portrait of a man in a suit and tie. Half of his face is in a shadow.

Richard Kuhn, who was forced to decline his Nobel Prize in Chemistry

Two laureates have voluntarily declined the Nobel Prize. In 1964, Jean-Paul Sartre was awarded the Literature Prize, but refused, stating, "A writer must refuse to allow himself to be transformed into an institution, even if it takes place in the most honourable form."[195] Lê Đức Thọ, chosen for the 1973 Peace Prize for his role in the Paris Peace Accords, declined, stating that there was no actual peace in Vietnam.[196] George Bernard Shaw attempted to decline the prize money while accepting the 1925 Literature Prize; eventually it was agreed to use it to found the Anglo-Swedish Literary Foundation.[197]

During the Third Reich, Adolf Hitler hindered Richard Kuhn, Adolf Butenandt, and Gerhard Domagk from accepting their prizes. All of them were awarded their diplomas and gold medals after World War II.[198][199]

In 1958, Boris Pasternak declined his prize for literature due to fear of what the Soviet Union government might do if he travelled to Stockholm to accept his prize. In return, the Swedish Academy refused his refusal, saying "this refusal, of course, in no way alters the validity of the award."[196] The academy announced with regret that the presentation of the Literature Prize could not take place that year, holding it back until 1989 when Pasternak's son accepted the prize on his behalf.[200][201]

Aung San Suu Kyi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, but her children accepted the prize because she had been placed under house arrest in Burma; Suu Kyi delivered her speech two decades later, in 2012.[202] Liu Xiaobo was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010 while he and his wife were under house arrest in China as political prisoners, and he was unable to accept the prize in his lifetime.

Cultural impact

Being a symbol of scientific or literary achievement that is recognisable worldwide, the Nobel Prize is often depicted in fiction. This includes films like The Prize (1963), Nobel Son (2007), and The Wife (2017) about fictional Nobel laureates, as well as fictionalised accounts of stories surrounding real prizes such as Nobel Chor, a 2012 film based on the theft of Rabindranath Tagore's prize.[203][204]

The statue and memorial symbol Planet of Alfred Nobel was opened in Alfred Nobel University of Economics and Law in Dnipro, Ukraine in 2008. On the globe, there are 802 Nobel laureates' reliefs made of a composite alloy obtained when disposing of military strategic missiles.[205]

Despite the symbolism of intellectual achievement, some recipients have embraced unsupported and pseudoscientific concepts, including various health benefits of vitamin C and other dietary supplements, homeopathy, HIV/AIDS denialism, and various claims about race and intelligence.[206] This is sometimes referred to as Nobel disease.

See also

imageHistory of Science portal

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flagSweden portal

List of Nobel laureates

List of female Nobel laureates

List of Nobel laureates by country

List of Nobel laureates in Chemistry

List of Nobel laureates in Literature

List of Nobel Peace Prize laureates

List of Nobel laureates in Physics

List of Nobel laureates in Physiology or Medicine

List of Nobel Memorial Prize laureates in Economics

Fields Medal – Mathematics award

Ig Nobel Prize – Annually awarded parody of the Nobel Prize

Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings

List of prizes known as the Nobel of a field

Lists of science and technology awards

Nobel Conference

Nobel Library – library in Stockholm, Sweden

Nobel Prize Museum – Museum about Alfred Nobel and the Nobel Prize

Nobel Prize effect – Observation about the adverse effects of receiving the Nobel Prize

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