Planck, a man of exceptional probity and integrity, accumulated not only honors, but also positions of power. These included that of permanent secretary to the Berlin Academy, one of the most influential positions in German science, and president of the KaiserWilhelm-Gesellschaft, the prestigious organization set up to create research institutes at private expense.
Planck's positive achievements as an administrator were significant. His institutional support was instrumental in the establishment of the new quantum mechanics and his initiative led to the creation of the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Institut für Physik in 1925, which was later renamed the Max-Planck-Institut. But the overriding impression of Planck conveyed by Dilemmas is that of a man fighting rearguard actions on many fronts. After the first world war, much that Planck held dear in science and in life was threatened.
The threats were material, ethical, ideological. The first world war left German science ostracized by the international scientific community. Inflation left German science broke as well. In the 1920s, theoretical physics, the supreme form of science in Planck's cosmology, came under increasing attack from the 'Deustches Physik' movement of Philipp Lenard and Johannes Stark.
Deutsches Physik posed a double challenge for Planck: it argued that experimental and applied research should be supported at the expense of pure theory; and its naked anti-Semitism posed a direct threat to the many Jewish theorists. More generally, almost everything that Planck, the moderate conservative, valued in German life progressively crumbled before his eyes. Ironically, the indeterminism of quantum mechanics found its uses in the ideological underpinnings of Weimar and Nazi world systems, both anathema to Planck.
Heilbron illuminates Planck's struggles with all these forces. It was in his dealings with the Nazis that Planck faced his severest dilemma: whether to maintain his institutional position and seek to protect science as best he could, or to speak out and risk being replaced by someone less likely to be trusted. He opted for the former course, unlike, for example, Albert Einstein, who publicly condemned the new regime.
The contrast between these two responses to Nazism is an instance of a central theme of Heilbron's book. He raises the question of how the scientist should act in the political realm—but no easy answers are offered.