Sunday, February 21, 2016

Planck by Brandon R. Brown

German physicist Max Planck was one of the most famous and well-respected scientists of his day. His work formed the foundation of quantum mechanics and is still relevant to physics today. He lived through both world wars, and these resulted in tragedy for his family.

Planck is a brief biography of the man by another physicist, Brandon R. Brown. Brown focuses his book on the last years of World War II, but from there reaches far back to his subject’s birth in 1858 and forward a little to his death in 1947. It is interesting that Brown did not choose to take a chronological approach given that entropy and the irreversibility of time were subjects of great interest to Planck. Perhaps he wants to readers to be somewhat unsettled, no doubt the way Planck must have been unsettled by events of his lifetime and the conclusions younger scientists drew from his own theories.

Brown presents Planck and as a flexible thinker who contributed to physics and accepted new theories at an age when most of his contemporaries were ready to shut the books on what could be learned. Apparently what most of us like to think of as middle-aged (at worst) is ancient for a physicist. His own work on thermal radiation established fundamental concepts of quantum theory, though he didn’t use the term “quanta.” When a young Albert Einstein proposed his special theory of relativity, Planck quick promote and build on it. He was slower to come around to general relativity (as wild as it is to us, it was insane to many in that time), and both men suffered philosophical heartburn from the quantum mechanics served up by the generation that came up under them.

Planck was very loyal to his country. His brother Hermann died in the Franco-Prussian War, and the family became intensely patriotic. At the start of World War I, he was hopeful that the war might strengthen and unify Germany. His oldest son, Karl, died at Verdun, and Germany fell on hard times.

Things were more complex when the Nazis took power. At times, his reputation as the nation’s most prominent scientist gave him leeway to resist anti-Semitic policies. At other times he acquiesced, hoping that the excesses of Nazi policies would be smoothed out or even reversed by the necessities of governing and the needs of the nation. He was so hopeful he even encouraged Jewish colleagues to stay. The Nazis saw no need for moderation, so Planck’s influence quickly waned. His son, Erwin, became involved in a resistance movement that hoped to topple the Nazis. He was implicated in a plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler. Though the Planck family appealed to every ear in and around the Nazi regime that might have sympathy, Erwin was convicted and eventually hanged. (Planck survived his first wife and four of his five children).

Brown doesn’t judge Planck too harshly, though some might. He had no love for the Nazis, but perhaps too much love for Germany, its scientific achievement, and its international standing, may have made him reluctant to boldly oppose them. This led to a break in his relationship with Einstein, though the younger eminence spoke very kindly of Planck even many years later. Because of he refused to embrace the Nazis, and he was well-liked by many foreign scientists, the Allies gave him a place in rebuilding the German scientific establishment after the war. The British, French, and Americans reorganized scientific institutes into the Max Planck Society, which is still active in supporting all manner of scientific endeavor.

I think the book is approachable for most adult readers who may have an interest in Planck or his times. Brown does not get so deep so deep into the science that he loses readers; he tries to explain it in a way that will make sense to a general audience. The structure of the book may make it difficult for a young reader to follow.

If you’re interested in this book, you may also be interested in

Brandon R. Brown. Planck: Driven by Vision, Broken by War. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015.