Great Physicists: The Life and Times of Leading Physicists from Galileo to Hawking

By William H. Cropper | Go to book overview

15
Reluctant Revolutionary
Max Planck

Physics Is Finished

The first of the revolutionary quantum theorists we meet, Max Planck, would not have succeeded in revolutions of the other kind. Planck was born into the conservative society of nineteenth-century Prussia, and in his formal, disciplined way, he remained committed to the Prussian traditions, even in his scientific work, it seemed, throughout his life. Planck's life was devoted to an intense, sometimes desperate search—a “hunger of the soul,” in Einstein's words—for what was absolute and fundamental. “It is of paramount importance,” Planck wrote in his scientific autobiography, “that the outside world is something independent from man, something absolute, and the quest for the laws which apply to this absolute appeared to me as the most sublime scientific pursuit in life.” His faith in physics, ideally rooted in the principles of classical physics, as a manifestation of the absolute principles had the intensity of a religious belief. His intellectual strength and integrity, Einstein tells us, grew from an “emotional condition… more like that of a deeply religious man or a man in love; the daily effort is not dictated by either a purpose or a program, but by an immediate need.”

In one of those ironies that seems part of a trite novel, Planck was advised in 1875 when he was seventeen not to make a career in physics, particularly theoretical physics, because the significant work was finished except for the details. Planck took his own advice, however, and eventually made his way to Berlin, where he studied under two of Germany's most famous physicists, Hermann Helmholtz and Gustav Kirchhoff. The great scientists were less than inspiring in the lecture hall—Helmholtz's lectures were poorly prepared, and Kirchhoff's were “dry and monotonous”—but in their writings, and in the principles of their subject, thermodynamics, Planck found what he sought, “something absolute.”

By 1890, Planck had fully developed his ideas on thermodynamics and suffered some setbacks. Possibly because he chose to emphasize the then new concept of entropy, Planck found it nearly impossible at first to make a favorable

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Great Physicists: The Life and Times of Leading Physicists from Galileo to Hawking
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page *
  • Contents v
  • Preface ix
  • Acknowledgments xi
  • I - Historical Synopsis 3
  • 1 - How the Heavens Go 5
  • 2 - A Man Obsessed 18
  • II - Historical Synopsis 41
  • 3 - A Tale of Two Revolutions 43
  • 4 - On the Dark Side 51
  • 5 - A Holy Undertaking 59
  • 6 - Unities and a Unifier 71
  • 7 - The Scientist as Virtuoso 78
  • 8 - The Road to Entropy 93
  • 9 - The Greatest Simplicity 106
  • 10 - The Last Law 124
  • III - Historical Synopsis 135
  • 11 - A Force of Nature 137
  • 12 - The Scientist as Magician 154
  • IV - Historical Synopsis 177
  • 13 - Molecules and Entropy 179
  • V - Historical Synopsis 201
  • 14 - Adventure in Thought 203
  • VI - Historical Synopsis 229
  • 15 - Reluctant Revolutionary 231
  • 16 - Science by Conversation 242
  • 17 - The Scientist as Critic 256
  • 18 - Matrix Mechanics 263
  • 19 - Wave Mechanics 275
  • VII - Historical Synopsis 293
  • 20 - Opening Doors 295
  • 21 - On the Crest of a Wave 308
  • 22 - Physics and Friendships 330
  • 23 - Complete Physicist 344
  • VIII - Historical Synopsis 363
  • 24 - Iγ·∂ψ = Mψ 365
  • 25 - What Do You Care? 376
  • 26 - Telling the Tale of the Quarks 403
  • IX - Historical Synopsis 421
  • 27 - Beyond the Galaxy 423
  • 28 - Ideal Scholar 438
  • 29 - Affliction, Fame, and Fortune 452
  • Chronology of the Main Events 464
  • Glossary 469
  • Invitation to More Reading 478
  • Index 485
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