Peter Debye

Physics is a field dominated by some of the most famous names in history. One man that had a lot to contribute to the field of physics is one Peter Debye. He is a Dutch-American physical chemist and physicist who was also a Nobel Laureate for Chemistry. He was a brilliant man with lots of interesting projects and theories to share with the world.

His Early Life

Peter Debye was born on 24 March 1884 in Maastricht, Netherlands. His name was originally Petrus Josephus Wilhelmus Debije but records show that he eventually changed the name. Peter Debye went to school at Aachen University of Technology that was located in Rhenish, Prussia. It was just 30km away from his hometown. In school, he focused on studying mathematics and classical physics. He got an electrical engineering degree in 1905 and just 2 years later, in 1907, he published his very first paper that featured a most elegant solution to be used for solving problems that concerned eddy currents. While he was studying at Aachen, he was taught theoretical physics by Arnold Sommerfeld. Arnold Sommerfeld – who was a theoretical physicist – has stated that it was actually Peter Debye that he considered as one of his most important discoveries.


In 1906, Sommerfeld took Debye with him to Munich, Bavaria where he was given a job. Debye was to be his assistant. It was in 1908 when Debye obtained his doctorate degree and submitted his dissertation paper on the subject of radiation pressure. In the year 1910, he used a method to derive the Planck radiation formula. Mac Planck, who already had a formula for the same problem agreed that Debye’s formula was a lot simpler.

The year 1911 saw Debye moving to Switzerland where he would teach at the University of Zurich. The position opened when Albert Einstein agreed to take on a job as a professor in Prague. After his stint at the University of Zurich, he moved to Utrecht in 1912, and then to Gottingen a year after in 1913. He stayed a bit longer in Gottingen but in 1920 he moved to ETH Zurich. It took another 7 years for him to make the move to Leipzig in 1927 and then to Berlin in 1934. Again, he succeeded Einstein and became the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physics director. It was during the era of Debye as director that most of the facilities of the Institute were built. In 1936, Debye was granted the Lorentz Medal and he became the Deutsche Physikalische Gesselschaft president from 1937 to 1939.

Contributions to Science

Indeed, he was a man of many talents and visions and this could be seen in his scientific works. The very first of his many major scientific contributions was in 1912 when he found a way to use the dipole moment to the movement of charges in asymmetric molecules. This was what led him to begin developing equations that related dipole moments to dielectric and temperature constants. It was because of this work that the units for molecular dipole moments are called debyes. In the same year, he went to work to expand on the theory of specific heat to lower temperatures simply by using low-frequency phonons. The theory of specific heat was first put forth by Albert Einstein.

A year after he went to work to extend the specific heat theory put forth by Einstein, he again went to work on the theory of Neils Bohr on atomic structure. It was this time that he introduced elliptical orbits. The concept was not something new, though, since his teacher Arnold Sommerfeld already introduced it before Debye did. From 1914-15, Peter Debye worked with Paul Scherrer on calculating the effect of varying temperatures on crystalline solids and the X-ray diffraction patterns they generated.

In 1923, Debye worked with Erich Huckel, his assistant, to develop and improve the theory of electrical conductivity in electrolyte solutions that were put forth by Svante Arrhenius. They did manage to make some improvements by way of the Debye-Huckel equation and while it is true that Lars Onsager made further improvements to their equation, the original equation is still looked upon as a major step towards gaining a better understanding of solutions that involved electrolytes. That same year, in 1923, Peter Debye went to work on developing a theory to help understand the Compton Effect.

His Later Work

Debye worked as a director of physics from 1934 to 39 at the Kiser Wilhelm Institute in Berlin as the director of physics. From 1936 onwards, he also held a job at the Frederick William Institute of Berlin as a Theoretical Physics professor. It is important to note that in the years he held these positions, Hitler was already the ruler of Nazi Germany and also in Austria.

Debye went to the US and went to Cornell University where he delivered the Baker Lectures. He left Germany a year later and became a professor at the same university where he also served as chairman of the Chemistry department. He held the position for a decade and even became a member of the Alpha Chi Sigma fraternity. He was granted US citizenship in 1940 and unlike the Debye of earlier years where he moved around from position to position, he actually stayed at Cornell for the rest of his career. In 1952, he retired from the University but that did not stop him from conducting research until he died.

Personal Life

In some biographies, it was stated that Debye moved to the US because he refused to accept the citizenship that was foisted on him by the Nazis. Although some records state that Debye was actively participating in cleansing the Wilhelm Kaiser Institute of Jewish people and other non-Aryan people, this truth is still being debated.

Peter Debye got married to Mathilde Alberer in 1913 and they had a son named Peter P. Debye. They also had a daughter which they named Mathilde Maria. Peter, their son, became a physicist and worked with his father on some researches. The younger Peter Debye also had a son who became a chemist.