Max Planck Ethan Bradway

Childhood and Adolescence

Max Planck was born on April 23, 1858. When he was nine, his father - a renowned professor of law - was given a position in the University of Munich; he brought his family with him. Planck himself entered into the prestigious Maximilian Gymnasium, which was a secondary school. Planck graduated at the age of 17, and he chose to make a career for himself in physics instead of music or language, in which he was equally proficient. This was because he believed that he could produce his most original work in this field ("Planck" 1-3).

PLANCK ENTERED THE UNIVERSITY OF MUNICH IN 1874, TRANSFERRED TO THE UNIVERSITY OF BERLIN (PICTURED) FOR A YEAR, AND THEN RETURNED TO THE UNIVERSITY OF MUNICH until the COMPLETION of his education. This was because he was not engaged by the lectures of Hermann von Helmholtz and Gustav robert Krichhoff; both were PROMINENT physicists and scientists ("Planck" 4).

Early Career

He was given his doctoral degree at the age of 21 in 1879; he qualified to be a Privatdozent (entry-level lecturer) at the University of Munich in the subsequent year. His climb up the educational ladder continued when his father's professional associations assisted Planck in securing the position of ausserordentlicher Professor ("associate professor") in theoretical physics; all of his previous and subsquent professor positions concerned this discipline. In 1889, the University of Berlin selected Planck to fill Krichhoff's position because he had recently died; because of this, Planck warmed up to Helmholtz and came to value him as both a mentor and coworker. In 1892, the University of Berlin awarded Planck the position of ordentlicher Professor ("full professor") ("Planck" 4).

Research Subjects


While Planck was studying in the Gymnasium, he studied the first law of thermodynamics; this law was a more general form of the law of conservation of energy. Subsequently, Planck explored the second law of thermodynamics during his time in university ("Planck" 6). This law states that:

  1. It is impossible to take in an amount of heat and be able to use all of it to produce
  2. It is not possible for heat and energy to flow from an object with a temperature lower than the object the energy flows to without an input of work
  3. In any closed system, entropy (disorder) must increase as the system moves forward through time ("Second Law of Thermodynamics").

Blackbody Radiation

Kirchhoff defined a blackbody in 1860 as an object which absorbs and then reemits all of the electromagnetic radiation which contacts it. Many scientists attempted to create a law which described how the energy of the released radiation is determined by its frequency and the temperature of the blackbody (Planck 7). However, the accepted theory placed the maximum amount of energy emitted by this blackbody radiation as being in the ultraviolet region of the electromagnetic spectrum. This conflicted with experimental data which placed this point in the middle of the spectrum; Planck was able to derive a new equation which more closely fit the experimental data, but it still possessed inconsistencies ("Max Planck" 5).

The classical theory is shown by the black curve, and Plank's final law is described by the colored curves (KUle).

The Advent of Quantization in Physics

Planck was able to resolve this discrepancy by using a previous observation of his that all possible energy levels of light were integer multiples of a constant, which he named the "Planck Constant" because he had discovered it. He used this constant, along with three other constants - the speed of light, the gravitational constant, the Coulomb force constant, and the Boltzmann constant - to calculate the Planck units ("Max Planck" 6). These units are the Planck Length, Energy, Mass, Time, and Temperature ( "Planck Units" 8-12). Physicists use these units to simplify the extremely complex mathematics needed to describe some parts of the universe. This is because substituting these units for the SI units allows physicists to make, using complicated math, all of these constant be equal to one. This makes analysis of extreme conditions - like the beginning of the universe - much easier to preform ("Units" 7). They also place limits on the values which they describe: Planck discovered that the universe is not smooth and continuous, but instead is quantized and discrete ("Max" 7).

This graph represents quantization in music. Specifically, the blue curve is an approximation of the red curve (WHICH is a 440 Hz sine wave). The red Blue is a quantized version of the red curve; this means that the red curve is CONTINUOUS WHILE the blue curve is discrete ("Chapter 5" 28).

Effects of this finding

Planck used the Planck units and this conclusion to perfect his blackbody radiation law. But this discovery had much larger implications: it upended the accepted belief that the universe is perfectly and infinitely smooth and continuous. This meant that when using atomic and subatomic distances, a new theory of physics was needed since both classical theory and general relativity were inadequate at these scales. Therefore, Planck's discovery kicked off the formulation of quantum physics and is viewed by scholars and scientists as being Planck's greatest achievement ("Planck" 10). Finally, it caused Planck to be awarded the 1918 Nobel Prize in Physics and to be considered by both his contemporaries and modern scientists as being the father of quantum mechanics ("Max" 12).

Later Life

Scientific Activities

Even though Planck's creation of quantum mechanics was his crowning achievement, he continued to contribute at a similarly advanced level to the fields of thermodynamics, optics, statistical mechanics, and physical chemistry ("Planck" 12). He also was the first physicist to support Albert Einstein's works published in 1905 when everyone else in the scientific community did not pay attention to them (Britannica "Albert Einstein" 23). After quantum mechanics was popularized in 1925 and 1926, Planck, working with Einstein and Erwin Schrodinger - the founder of wave mechanics - denounced the statistical and indeterministic interpretation of the theory proposed by Bohr, Max Born, and Werner Heisenberg ("Max" 13). Like most physicists and scientists during his time, Planck published his work through lectures, scientific papers, and conferences.

Intellectual Positions

Planck held two scientific and intellectual offices during his life (excluding his professorships), which are:

  1. Secretary of the Mathematics and Physics Departments of the Prussian Academy of Sciences from 1912 to 1938
  2. President of the Max Planck Society, which was called the Kaiser Wilhelm Society during Planck's lifetime, from 1930 to 1937 ("Planck" 14)

Planck is the third standing person from the left. This photo is of the attendees of the 1911 Solvay Conference (Benjamin 1911)

Here, Planck is the second person from the left in the front row; this photo is of the members of the 1927 Solvay Conference (Benjamin 1927).

Planck is next to Einstein in this picture (Materialscientist).

The Nazis

After the Nazis ascended to power in Germany in 1933, Planck used his power as the President of the Kaiser Wilhelm Society to clandestinely protect Jewish scientists and physicists from the government and allow them to continue their research. However, the "Deutsche Physik" political group criticized Planck, Heisenberg, and Arnold Sommerfeld for teaching Einstein's theories, labelling them as being "white Jews". In 1936, because Planck's term as President of the Kaiser Wilhelm Society had ended in that year, the government coerced Planck into not running for reelection. The Nazis also seized control of the Prussian Academy of Sciences in 1938; Planck resigned his position there in order to protest this decision ("Max" 10-11).

Tragedy and Death

Planck experienced many personal tragedies during the last decades of his life. This began in 1909, when his first wife died; this still left Planck with four children (twin daughters and two sons). However, things quickly turned for the worst during World War 1. Karl, the older son, was killed in action in 1916, and his daughters died in 1917 and 1919, respectively, while giving birth.

Planck's life was further complicated during World War 2: a bombing raid demolished Planck's residence in Berlin in 1944, and the younger son (Erwin) was arrested in 1944 for his connection to a botched assassination attempt carried against Adolf Hitler in the same year. After months of torture, Erwin was hanged. When the war concluded, Planck, his second wife, and their son moved to Göttingen; Planck died there from a stroke in 1947 ("Planck 14).


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