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No. 2944:
Max Planck's Triumphs and Tragedies

by Haleh Ardebili

Today, a scientist's triumphs and tragedies. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

In 1900, a German physicist made an important discovery. He found a relationship between the energy and frequency of radiation. His name was Max Planck. The constant that relates those two parameters is named Planck's constant.

Max Planck
Max Planck (Wikimedia)

A few years back, I came across Planck's biography. As I expected, Max Planck's scientific contributions were outstanding. He was one of the originators of the quantum theory—the implications of which govern our daily lives including the electronics we use today. And he won the Nobel Prize in Physics. But it was his personal life, including a series of tragic events, and his perseverance that caught my attention.

Max Planck was born in Kiel, Germany in 1858. He was talented in music. He played piano, cello and organ, and he composed songs. At one point he considered music as a career, but decided to study physics. Planck explains his decision "as the most sublime scientific pursuit in life."

Planck studied with some famous scientists including Kirchhoff and Helmholtz at the Universities of Munich and Berlin. He married Marie Merck and had four children.

After the age of 50, Planck's life took a tragic turn. His wife died in 1909. Then, during World War I, his older son Karl was killed in action. Shortly after, Planck's twin daughters died in childbirth, Margarete in 1917 and Emma in 1919. But tragedy did not end there.

During World War II, Planck remained in Germany. Initially, he stayed in Berlin, but it was too dangerous; so he moved out. In 1944, his house in Berlin was bombed during an air raid. Only a few months later, Max Planck's younger son Erwin got arrested. He was suspected of involvement in the attempted assassination of Hitler. In 1945, Planck's son, Erwin, who was also his best friend was executed by the Gestapo. Planck died two years after.

From Left to Right: Nernst, Einstein, Planck, Millikan and von Laue in Berlin in 1931
From Left to Right: Nernst, Einstein, Planck, Millikan and von Laue in Berlin in 1931 (Wikipedia)

Max Planck was praised and revered by his colleagues including Einstein. He was known for his great personal qualities and dedication to science. Glancing into the life of a scientist like Max Planck reminds us of the endurance and perseverance behind many scientific discoveries. Perhaps it can also help to show us the human dimension of the not-so-dispassionate work that we call science.

I'm Haleh Ardebili at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Notes and references:

Nobel Lectures, Physics 1901-1921, (Amsterdam: Elsevier Publishing Company, 1967).

This episode first aired on May 9, 2014.