Peter Debye was a Dutch-American physical chemist and physicist who was awarded the 1936 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for “for his contributions to the study of molecular structure”, investigating dipole movements, x-rays and light scattering.
His Early Life
Peter Joseph William Debye, was born on 24 March 1884 in Maastricht, Netherlands. Debye attended Aachen University of Technology in Rhenish, Prussia; just 30km away from his hometown. At university, he focused on studying mathematics and classical physics.
He received 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 for solving problems concerning eddy currents. While he was studying at Aachen, he was taught theoretical physics by Arnold Sommerfeld, who was impressed by Debye, and later stated that he considered Peter Debye to be one of his most important discoveries.
In 1906, Sommerfeld took Debye with him to the University of Munich, Bavaria where he was given a position as his assistant and in 1908 Debye obtained his doctorate degree with his dissertation paper on the subject of radiation pressure. By 1910, Debye was a qualified lecturer at Munich and he used his own method to derive the Planck radiation formula, Max Planck, agreeing that Debye’s derivation was more straightforward.
The year 1911 saw Debye moving to Switzerland where he taught at the University of Zurich as professor of theoretical physics. After a spell at the University of Zurich, Debye moved to Utrecht University in 1912, and then to University of Gottingen in 1914. Six year later in 1920, Debye moved to Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule (ETH) in Zurich as professor of physics, and as principal.
In 1927 Debye accepted a position at Leipzig University and Debye became director of the Max Planck Institute of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physics in Berlin in 1934 and also and professor of physics at the University of Berlin. It was during the era of Debye as director that the most of the facilities of the Institute were built. In 1936, Debye was awarded the Lorentz Medal and he was president of the Physical Society president from 1937 to 1939.
Contributions to Science
Debye 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 studied the dipole moments of molecules. A dipole happens when electron charge is unevenly distributed in a molecule which means that part of the molecule carries a slight negative charge and part carries a slight positive charge. A dipole moment measures the strength of the dipole.
Debye developed equations to calculate the size of the dipole moments and he also determined information regarding the structure of molecules. The units for molecular dipole moments, Debye units, are named after him. In the same year, he devised the Debye model for specific heat which estimated the phonon contribution to the specific heat (heat capacity) in a solid.
From 1914-15, Debye worked with Paul Scherrer on X-ray diffraction and together they devised a way to use powdered samples of crystalline, instead of preparing time consuming crystals, developing the Debye-Scherrer method of X-ray diffraction.
In 1923, Debye and his assistant Erich Huckel devised the Debye-Hückel equation, improving Svante Arrhenius’s theory of electrical conductivity in electrolyte solutions.
That same year, in 1923, Peter Debye developed a theory to help understand the Compton Effect, named after American physicist Arthur Compton, discovering independently that the wavelength of X-rays increases when they collide with electrons.
He received the 1936 Nobel Prize in Chemistry “for his contributions to the study of molecular structure,” for his work on dipole moments and X-ray diffraction.
His Later Work
In 1940 Debye moved to America to Cornell University as professor of chemistry and principal of the chemistry department. He held this position for over decade, becoming a US citizen in 1946 and became a member of the Alpha Chi Sigma fraternity. In 1952, Debye retired from the University, becoming an emeritus professor and conducting research until he died.
In some biographies, it is 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 married Mathilde Alberer in 1913 and they had a son, Peter P. Debye and a daughter, Mathilde Maria. Peter, their son, became a physicist and worked with his father on some researches.
Peter Debye died on November 2 1966, aged 82 from a heart attack.