Academic journal article Pennsylvania Literary Journal

Max Planck: A Micro-Biography

Academic journal article Pennsylvania Literary Journal

Max Planck: A Micro-Biography

Article excerpt

As a young man Planck fancied he might

devote himself to one of his three great loves:

classical music, letters or physics.

He abandoned music because he felt

he wasn't good enough; he gave up letters

because, under the lucid spell of Boltzmann,

he found it too imprecise; thus he became a physicist.

To his horror he found a grave defect

in the established order of nature,

something afoul in the squiggly equations

of heat emission. He wrote his dissertation

on thermodynamics, a field that had commenced

with the pamphlet of an obscure young engineer

named Sadi Carnot, who wanted to build

a better steam engine.

Carnot died at thirty-six of cholera

and published his only work,

Reflexions sur la puissance mortice du feu,

in 1824. (The work lay largely ignored

until rescued by James Joule some years later.)

Planck knew, and hated himself for it,

that he had discovered that radiation

proceeded in spurts, or quanta. In 1900

he introduced his theory to the world:

the universe was discontinuous.

Only Einstein seemed to understand,

and in 1916, he revised the original formula

to exorcise all vestiges of the past Planck

so cherished. In turn, Planck supported Einstein's

relativity theories, mainly because he believed

they completed classical physics. After all,

Einstein believe in God and had pronounced

the speed of light an absolute limit. Planck yearned

for absolutes, but they eluded him, winked like tarts.

He was described around this time

as "most definitely not a carefree,

unrepressed, noisy sort of person."

He liked to climb the highest and most inaccessible

mountains, and continued doing so until his eighties.

His shirts were always starched stiffly, his suits black.

He felt a deep reverence for the state. …

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