Planck: Driven by Vision, Broken by War

Planck: Driven by Vision, Broken by War

Planck: Driven by Vision, Broken by War

Planck: Driven by Vision, Broken by War


Planck's Law, an equation used by physicists to determine the radiation leaking from any object in the universe, was described by Albert Einstein as "the basis of all twentieth-century physics." Max Planck is credited with being the father of quantum theory, and his work laid the foundation for our modern understanding of matter and energetic processes. But Planck's story is not well known, especially in the United States. A German physicist working during the first half of the twentieth century, his library, personal journals, notebooks, and letters were all destroyed with his home in World War II. What remains, other than his contributions to science, are handwritten letters in German shorthand, and tributes from other scientists of the time, including his close friend Albert Einstein. In Planck: Driven by Vision, Broken by War, Brandon R. Brown interweaves the voices and writings of Planck, his family, and his contemporaries - with many passages appearing in English for the first time - to create a portrait of a groundbreaking physicist working in the midst of war. Planck spent much of his adult life grappling with the identity crisis of being an influential German with ideas that ran counter to his government. During the later part of his life, he survived bombings and battlefields, surgeries and blood transfusions, all the while performing his influential work amidst a violent and crumbling Nazi bureaucracy. When his son was accused of treason related to a bombing, Planck tried to use his standing as a German "national treasure," and wrote direct letters to Hitler to spare his son's life. Brown tells the story of Planck's friendship with the far more outspoken Albert Einstein, and shows how his work fits within the explosion of technology and science that occurred during his life. The story of a brilliant man living in a dangerous time, Brandon Brown gives Max Planck his rightful place in the history of science, and shows how war-torn Germany deeply impacted his life and work.


Science has often found unique ways to humiliate its devotees. In 1964, two youngish men crawled inside an enormous metal basket carrying brushes and a bucket of soapy water. The 20-foot-long radio receiver looked like the head of a lacrosse stick, but functioned like an ear horn, opening to the heavens and listening to the cosmos. They scrubbed and scrubbed, hoping the caked layer of pigeon poop might (gloved fingers crossed) be the cause of the mysterious, frustrating, and unwanted signal. Maybe taking a manual Q-tip to the horn antenna’s ear would clear up the one note of noise.

They were an unlikely pair in an unlikely place. Robert Woodrow Wilson was a Houston native, and Arno Penzias was a German immigrant who had escaped one of Hitler’s camps at age six. And this hill overlooking New York City was not a normal place to pursue astronomy. Bell Labs had designed the antenna to communicate with the new Telstar satellite, but with down time from its primary duties, the owners let astronomers give it a whirl. Wilson and Penzias wanted to probe the sparse outer reaches of the Milky Way galaxy.

They needed the signal to be pristine, and with great effort, they had fine-tuned and calibrated the big basket for their measurements. They found ways to filter out local radio broadcasts, noisy radar echoes, and other extraneous signals arising from their own electronics. After all this, the horn still had some kind of tinnitus—there was a little ringing at the wavelength 7.35 centimeters. No matter where in the cosmos they pointed the antenna, no matter the time of day or night, there was the same ringing, always the same strength. The only thing that all directions and all times of day had in common, they figured, was bird crap. When they ran the big device on chilly nights, pigeons gathered at the warm end and made a mess.

Bird crap removed, they pointed the instrument again away from the thick plane of the Milky Way galaxy and out into the darkest, deepest reaches of space. They wanted to make sure the signal was gone, like listening for an unwanted hum in an excellent audio system. Just sit still in . . .

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