Max Planck, originator of quantum theory, tormented by war and personal loss

New biography illuminates personal struggles of physics pioneer

Max Planck

INCONSTANT PLANCK  A biography by physicist Brandon Brown illuminates the personal struggles of the physics pioneer Max Planck.

Materialscientist/Wikimedia Commons

Brandon R. Brown
Oxford Univ., $29.95

Scientists are products of their times and their culture. Some see beyond those constraints. Some are trapped within them. Max Planck was trapped, as physicist Brandon Brown relates, and therefore could not escape from the turmoil of Germany’s wars.

In an unusual approach to a scientific biography, each chapter heading of Planck selects a month during the final four years in the life of the scientist, who died in 1947 at age 89. His story is told through flashbacks to various points in his distinguished career as the godfather of modern German science.

Planck’s story is a sad one. Nearly all of his family — first wife, sons, daughters — predeceased him, through illness, war or execution (of his son Erwin, who had links to some of those engaged in the plot to kill Hitler). Even Planck’s greatest scientific achievement — the discovery of quantum theory — was bittersweet, as he resisted accepting the implications of quantum physics discerned by Einstein, Bohr, Heisenberg and others.

In his account of Planck’s life, Brown emphasizes the personal over the professional, especially probing the conflict Planck faced during the Nazi years. Obsessed with optimism, Planck persistently told himself everything would be OK as he acquiesced in the purge of Jewish scientists. Deep down, it seems, Planck knew the wrongness of it all, but his allegiance to the state overwhelmed any impulse he might have had to stand up, speak out or leave. Still, Planck was revered by his scientific colleagues and his name adorns all of Germany’s major research centers today.

Brown’s flashback approach makes the arc of Planck’s life a little hard to follow. And the book’s science often lacks depth (except for a technical appendix). Some explanations are scientifically sketchy — for instance, quantum-entangled particles do not communicate faster than light, as Brown writes. Analogies are frequently strained (“the mathematical bus of Planck and Einstein was leaving [others] of the physics world coughing with exhaust fumes”).

But on the whole, this biography looks more deeply into the mind and personality of its subject than many scientific biographies. And Planck’s life is worth examining for the lessons it illustrates about scientists working within a society that values ideology over intelligence.

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Tom Siegfried is a contributing correspondent. He was editor in chief of Science News from 2007 to 2012 and managing editor from 2014 to 2017.

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