Max Karl Ernst Ludwig Planck was born in Kiel, Germany, on April 23, 1858, This German Physicist 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. Planck was also awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1918.
Planck was born into a large family and was brought up in a tradition which greatly respected scholarship, honesty, fairness, and generosity. The values he was given as a young child quickly became the values that he would cherish throughout his life, showing the utmost respect for the institutions of state and church. Max began his elementary schooling in Kiel. He did well at school but not brilliantly, usually coming somewhere between third and eighth in his class. Music was perhaps his best subject and he was awarded the school prize in catechism and good conduct almost every year. However, towards the end of his school career, his teachers raised his level of interest in physics and mathematics, and he became deeply impressed by the absolute nature of the law of conservation of energy. Planck describes why he chose physics:
“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.”
Contributions and Achievements:
Planck was appointed the professor of theoretical physics at the University of Berlin. While in Berlin Planck did his most luminous work and delivered outstanding lectures. He studied thermodynamics in particular examining the distribution of energy according to wavelength. By combining the formulae of Wien and Rayleigh, Planck announced a new formula now known as Planck’s radiation formula. Within two months Planck made a complete theoretical deduction of his formula giving up classical physics and introducing the quanta of energy. On 14 December 1900 he presented his theoretical explanation involving quanta of energy at a meeting of the Physikalische Gesellschaft in Berlin. He announced his derivation of the relationship which 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.
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. 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) and Theorie der Wärmestrahlung (Theory of heat radiation).
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 validity gradually became irresistible as its application accounted for many differences between observed phenomena and classical theory.
Planck was also a philosopher of science. In his Scientific Autobiography and Other Papers, he stated Planck’s Principle, which holds that “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”.
This great man died on October 4, 1947 at the age of 89 in Gottingen, West Germany.
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