Science and Conscience: The Life of James Franck

Science and Conscience: The Life of James Franck

Science and Conscience: The Life of James Franck

Science and Conscience: The Life of James Franck


James Franck (1882- 1964) was one of the twentieth century's most respected scientists, known both for his contributions to physics and for his moral courage. During the 1920s, Franck was a prominent figure in the German physics community. His research into the structure of the atom earned him the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1925. After the Nazis seized power in 1933, Franck resigned his professorship at Gottingen in protest against anti-Jewish policies. He soon emigrated to the United States, where, at the University of Chicago, he began innovative research into photosynthesis.

When the Second World War began, Franck was recruited for the Manhattan Project. With Enrico Fermi and Leo Szilard, he created a controlled nuclear chain reaction which led to the creation of a nuclear weapon. During the final months of the war, however, Franck grew concerned about the consequences of using such a weapon. He became the principal author of the celebrated "Franck Report," which urged Truman not to use the atomic bomb and warned that a nuclear arms race against the Soviet Union would be an inevitable result. After the War, Franck turned his attention back to photosynthesis; his discoveries influenced chemistry as well as physics.


James Franck was a great physicist and an exemplary human being, one of the twentieth century’s most respected scientists. Before the First World War, he was an early leader in creating the imaginative experiments that led to a deeper understanding of the quantum energy levels of atoms. Decades later, at the end of the Second World War, he was a wise and heroic leader of the scientists at the University of Chicago who sought to prevent both the use of the atomic bomb against Japan and a postwar nuclear arms race with the Soviet Union that they predicted would be an inevitable consequence of its use. This definitive biography of James Franck’s life is a welcome addition to the history of that remarkable generation of physicists who transformed our understanding of the universe and, in so doing, put life on earth at risk.

In 1914, Franck and his colleague Gustav Hertz devised and performed two key experiments—for which they received the Nobel Prize in 1926—that later confirmed the validity of Niels Bohr’s theory of the atom (1913). Over the next several decades Franck and the many physicists who were drawn to work with him from Europe and the United States went on to illuminate the structure of simple molecules and how they absorb energy and dissociate (the FranckCondon principle).

During these early productive years in Germany—despite the Great War and its harsh aftermath—Franck built his institute of experimental physics at Göttingen University. By the early 1920s, it had become one of the world’s most distinguished centers of physics and had set a new standard for university physics departments worldwide. Pioneering interdisciplinary collaboration between experimentalists and leading theoreticians (including Max Born, Werner Heisenberg, and Niels Bohr), and mathematicians (including David Hilbert and . . .

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