Max Planck

By the end of the nineteenth century it was thought that all the basic laws of physics had been discovered and that from then on it would only be a question of filling in the details. A problem which was occupying the attention of scientists at the time was the distribution of energy in radiation from hot bodies. Among these scientists was a young physicist in Berlin called Max Planck.

Max Earl Ernest Ludwig Planck was born in Kiel, Germany, in 1858 into a family of lawyers. He went to the Universities of Munich and Berlin and was awarded his doctorate at Berlin in 1879. Having worked as an assistant in the physics department of the University of Munich, he returned to his home town, Kiel, to take up the professorship of physics there. All the while he was working on the problem  of thermal radiation. His interest in the subject had been stimulated by his colleague Gustav Kirchhoff at Berlin. In 1889, when Kirchhoff retired from the professorship of physics in Berlin, Max Planck took his place.

The problem of the radiation from hot bodies was a riddle. If a perfect radiator (a poker painted with lamp black is very nearly one) is heated up, it starts to radiate heat waves. These heat waves are exactly like light waves only they have a longer wavelength. At all temperatures the heat is not of one wavelength but is speard over a part of the spectrum. The part of the spectrum includes visible light if the poker is hot enough.

The problem facing scientists at the time was to find a mathematical equation which would describe the distribution of energy among the various wavelengths of radiation given out. If lights and heat were supposed to be wave motions then it should be easy to find this. Attempts to explain the distribution of heat radiation as a wave motion failed. then, in December 1900, Max Planck published a paper in which he put forward an almost incredible idea.

If energy could be viewed as made up of discrete bundles of quanta and not as a continuous wave, then it would be possible to explain the spectrum of thermal radiation.

In 1918 Max Planck was awarded the Nobel Prize for his discovery. Like Albert Einstein he was a musician. The two of them entertained their circle in Berlin before the 1st World War Max Planck at the piano, Einstein at the violin. Max Planck retired from teaching at Berlin University in 1926 and died at Gottingen in Germany in 1947

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