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Famous scholars from Kiel:

Max Planck

Max Planck, the Nobel laureate, taught theoretical physics at the Schleswig-Holstein University in the position of a professor without a permanent position or chair.

If the very gifted high school graduate Max Planck had paid attention to the Munich Professor of Physics Philipp von Jolly in 1874, he would certainly not have received the Nobel Prize for physics 44 years later, as von Jolly advised the 16 year-old Planck to apply his talents to a different discipline as it appeared (to von Jolly) that all that there was in physics was detailed work for second-class minds. There is a memorial to Max Planck the founder of quantum theory at Küterstrasse 17 in Kiel, just next to the building of HSH Nordbank. This is where Max Karl Ernst Ludwig Planck was born on 23rd April 1858. His father was the third generation of his family to be a university professor and taught civil law at the University of Kiel. In 1866 Max Planck entered the junior year of the Kieler Gelehrtenschule but the family soon left the city as his father was given a chair in Munich.

If Planck had not become famous as a physicist, he would perhaps have been famous as a musician. As a school-boy he sang as a treble in major oratorios and Planck, who was deeply religious, also played the organ for church services. He is said to have considered studying music but decided he would study physics in Munich and Berlin. At the age of 21 he presented his dissertation "On the second law of thermodynamics". He was awarded his "Habilitation", the qualification which allowed him to teach at a university, only one year later.

He received his first chair in the winter of 1885/86 - in Kiel. He taught theoretical physics for a salary of 2,000 Reichsmark per annum. The head of the ministry at that time, a certain Mr Althoff, wrote in the file recording his appointment "Mr Planck made an extremely favourable impression on me both through his modest behaviour and through his clarity and assertiveness when discussing scientific problems."

In 1889 Planck received a call to the University of Berlin as professor where he remained until his retirement in 1926. During the National Socialist era Planck, acting in his capacity as President of the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gesellschaft and Chief Secretary of the Prussian Academy of Sciences, managed the funds for scientific research. He saw the National Socialist regime as a passing phenomenon and avoided open confrontation with the party and government. His objective was the creation of a stable foundation for German science after the collapse of the National Socialist regime which he foresaw.

Planck visited Kiel University once again in 1944, this time to receive the title of "Honorary Senator". His eldest son was killed at Verdun in World War I and shortly after receiving the honour in Kiel his younger son was executed for his part in the events of 20th July 1944. Nevertheless, immediately after the end of World War II and in spite of being nearly 90, he had the strength to initiate the reorganisation of the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gesellschaft from Göttingen in the year immediately following the war. Its successor organisation was refounded in 1946 as the "Max-Planck-Gesellschaft zur Förderung der Wissenschaften in der britischen Zone" (Max Planck Society for the Advancement of the Sciences in the British Zone). Today the Max Planck Society maintains 80 research institutes both in Germany and abroad. Planck died in Göttingen on 4th October 1947 after being made the first honorary citizen of the Kiel, the capital of Schleswig-Holstein, in the same year.

Sandra Lumma

Thermodynamics, quantum leap and laws of radiation

When Planck took up his appointment in Kiel, theoretical physics was not yet a generally established academic subject. The lecture cycle, which he introduced at that time and published in 1897 as series of text-books, extended from mechanics via thermodynamics, electrodynamics and optics to atomic physics, a subject which was at that time in its early infancy. Planck created a paradigm shift within this young discipline and even today he still shapes the curriculum in universities and similar institutions.

Out of all the great discoveries Planck made in the field of physics, the "quantum leap" is the one best known. When used as a metaphor it means any type of sudden advance but its original meaning applied to a revolution in physics. The quantum leap stands for the sudden transition of a system (without any intermediate stage) from one energy state to the next. In real physical systems a quantum leap is not necessarily a large change, and can in fact be very insignificant.

Like other physicists before him, Planck worked on thermal radiation, in other words, on the fact that heated bodies emit radiation. He was particularly concerned with an issue which was greatly debated at that time and which defied all attempts at a solution - the distribution of energy between the different colours of the spectrum which is emitted by a body depending on its temperature. At the end of 1900 he finally succeeded in deriving a general law for the radiation from a black body. Among the premises assumed in his solution is particularly the one that not only the matter but also the energy which is absorbed and emitted by the atoms and molecules cannot be continuously apportioned but that it exists as quanta. The effect of this premise was so astounding that although Planck's formula was accepted, this division into quanta was not really trusted immediately and the Nobel Prize was only awarded to him after much hesitation. Planck's concept of energy quanta contradicted all previous physics theories and founded a new field – quantum physics.

Planck saw thermodynamics as an important area throughout his entire research career. Planck's studies of thermodynamics made a major contribution to the theoretical rationale and conceptual foundation of physical chemistry. It is little known that in the second half of the 1890s he discovered a theoretical proof for the existence of electrically charged particles with different polarities in conductive solutions. The chemists Jacobus Henricus Van't Hoff, Svante August Arrhenius and Wilhelm Ostwald had also developed this proof although using entirely different methods. They later received the Nobel Prize for Chemistry.

With his detailed definition of Nernst's heat theorem (dealing with the physical/chemical behaviour of systems at absolute zero) in 1910, Planck made his last great contribution to the development of physics.

For further reading:

On the 60th anniversary of the death of Max Planck and his 150th birthday (in German)

Max Planck exhibition in the Physics Department (in German)

Photo: Prof. Michael Bonitz

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