Max Karl Ernst Ludwig Planck. April 23, 1858 – October 4, 1947. German theoretical physicist, founder of quantum physics. Laureate of the Nobel Prize in Physics.


Life and Work:

1. The story goes that that, in his youth, Max Planck came to 70-year-old professor Philipp von Jolly and told him that he decided to study theoretical physics. “Young man,” said the old and eminent scientist, “Why do you want to ruin your life? In this field, almost everything is already discovered, and all that remains is to fill a few holes… Is it worth taking on such a hopeless business?” However, the matter turned out to be quite promising: Max Planck turned physics upside down and determined the direction of its development for the entire 20th century and beyond.


2. Max Planck, the offspring of an old noble family, was born in Kiel, the capital of the Duchy of Schleswig-Holstein. His grandfather and great-grandfather were professors of theology at the University of Gottingen, and his father was a professor of law at the University of Kiel. His mother came from a pastor's family. “This ancestry of excellent, reliable, incorruptible, idealistic and generous men, devoted to the service of the Church and State, must be remembered if one wishes to understand the character of Max Planck and the roots of his success,” famous physicist Max Born wrote.


3. However, Planck could not achieve any success in physics at all. He was hesitating for a long time choosing between physics and music. As a child, he was studying piano and organ. He developed interest in natural sciences at the Royal Maximilian Gymnasium in Munich where his father was invited to teach law.


4. Later, Planck wrote that he perceived the law of conservation of energy “as the Gospel,” the first of those “absolute laws” that govern the world. In his Scientific Autobiography and Other Papers, he explained why he became interested in science: “My original decision to devote myself to science was a direct result of the discovery which has never ceased to fill me with enthusiasm since my early youth – the comprehension of the far from obvious fact that the laws of human reasoning coincide with the laws governing the sequences of the impression we receive from the world about us; that, therefore, pure reasoning can enable man to gain insight into the mechanism of the latter. In this connection, it is of paramount importance that the outside world is something independent from man, something absolute, and the quest for the laws which apply to this absolute appeared to me as the most sublime scientific pursuit in life.”


5. Max Planck was studying physics and mathematics at the University of Munich for three years at the University of Berlin for another year. That memorable conversation with Philipp von Jolly took place at the University of Munich exactly.


6. In Berlin, Planck became acquainted with Rudolf Clausius’s works and became interested in thermodynamics. His doctoral thesis On the Second Law of Thermodynamics did not arouse interest in scientific circles but brought him the position of an assistant professor at the University of Munich, and then he became an associate professor at the University of Kiel.


7. During his “Kiel” period, Planck completed the monograph The Principle of Conservation of Energy. He received an award from the Faculty of Philosophy at the University of Gottingen for this work. He was working extensively on physical chemistry, which earned him respect in scientific circles.


8. Planck was working at the University of Berlin for more than half a century: he was heading the Department of Theoretical Physics from 1889 to 1926, then, when he reached the age limit, he remained an honorary professor and continued giving lectures.


9. When young Planck was to give one of the first lectures at the University of Berlin, he forgot the audience where the lecture was scheduled and turned to the administrative office to find it out. The clerk replied: “Young man, you won’t understand Planck's lectures.”


10. Planck created a very new science, quantum physics, during this “Berlin” period specifically. Planck wrote that he did not even think about creating a new science but only wanted to more thoroughly study the radiation of an absolutely black body. The study gave an unexpected result: Planck put forward a hypothesis about the quantum nature of radiation, and then he became convinced of its truth.


11. Almost twenty years later, when giving his Nobel speech, Planck played upon words: “After some weeks of the most strenuous work of my life, light came into the darkness, and a new undreamed-of perspective opened up before me.”


12. Quantum theory has conquered the world. Everything happened exactly as Max Planck predicted: scientific truth triumphed as its opponents disappeared.


13. Planck preferred to say: the quantum of action instead of Planck’s constant, and the law of normal energy distribution instead of Planck’s law, thereby avoiding the use of his name in these terms.


14. “My futile attempts to put the elementary quantum of action into the classical theory continued for a number of years and they cost me a great deal of effort,” Planck wrote. The scientist took a lot of effort trying to reconcile his results with classical physics. Einstein used to ridicule these efforts: condemning Planck's opinion that light is only emitted by quanta, but they absorb light continuously, the creator of the theory of relativity put it aphoristically: “Always in the dining room, but sometimes in the restroom?”


15. The term “theory of relativity” was proposed by Max Planck specifically.


16. In 1894, Max Planck was elected as the member of the Prussian Academy of Sciences. Planck was its permanent secretary from 1912 to 1943.


17. Planck was renowned for being an excellent lecturer who was able to captivate his listeners. The scientist compiled the five-volume course Introduction to Theoretical Physics based on his lectures. His books are distinguished by their literary style, depth and clarity of presentation.


18. Planck had five children in two marriages, but only one child survived the father. The scientist took marriage seriously. According to his second wife Margareta, the niece of his first wife who died early, “he fully revealed all his human qualities only in the family.”


19. Planck was engaged in mountaineering throughout his life. He became interested in this activity when he was a student in Munich. Being a very old man, he used to ascend the three-thousanders in the Alps.


20. Planck used to play the piano all his life, at least one hour a day.


21. Planck welcomed the First World War, considered it to be fair and signed the Manifesto of the Ninety-Three that justified the entry of Germany into the war. Subsequently, Planck changed his views under Dutch physicist Hendrik Lorenz’s influence.


22. When he was a very old man, Planck tried to argue with Hitler – he wanted to convince Hitler to spare the Jews.


23. Life did not spoil the great physicist at all. Planck's eldest son died in the First World War, and both of his twin daughters died in childbirth. The youngest son from his first wife was executed in 1944 for participating in a conspiracy against Hitler. Planck's house and library burned down during an air raid on Berlin in 1944, and the scientist almost died from the bombing while giving a lecture in Kassel in the spring of 1945.


24. Planck moved from bombed-out Berlin to a friend's estate near Magdeburg. When this estate was destroyed, the scientist and his wife used to hide in the forests and in local residents’ homes, until the U.S. military took him to Gottingen at his colleagues’ request. The aged scientist continued to lecture almost until his death.


25. Planck's tombstone in Gottingen is engraved with his name and the formula h = 6.62 10−34Ws2. This is the value of Planck's constant.


26. A new nematode species, Pristionchus maxplancki, was named after Planck. To commemorate the scientist’s 80th anniversary, the 1069 Planckia asteroid was named after him. His name was also given to a crater on the far side of the Moon.


27. During Planck's lifetime and with his consent, the Kaiser Wilhelm Society for the Advancement of Science uniting research institutes in Germany was renamed the Max Planck Society.


28. A special place among many Planck awards is taken by… the Max Planck Medal. This medal was introduced in 1929 by the German Physical Society for extraordinary achievements in theoretical physics. The first recipients of the Max Planck medal in 1929 were Max Planck and Albert Einstein.