Advertisement

Planck: The Fight for Order

The Dilemmas of a Upright Man: Max Planck as Spokesman for German Science. J.L. Heilbron. University of California Press, Berkeley, 1986. 238 pp., illus. $16.95. The story of Max Planck goes far beyond his status as an eminent scientist and creator of the quantum. Planck, who was born in Germany in 1858 and remained there until his death in 1947, lived in an era that witnessed significant changes throughout the world. Heilbron's book seeks to understand Planck in his historical setting, and whil

By | January 12, 1987

The Dilemmas of a Upright Man: Max Planck as Spokesman for German Science. J.L. Heilbron. University of California Press, Berkeley, 1986. 238 pp., illus. $16.95.

The story of Max Planck goes far beyond his status as an eminent scientist and creator of the quantum. Planck, who was born in Germany in 1858 and remained there until his death in 1947, lived in an era that witnessed significant changes throughout the world. Heilbron's book seeks to understand Planck in his historical setting, and while it gives an insightful account of his contributions to physics and philosophy, it is more concerned with Planck as an institutional actor, a leading representative of the German scientific community. The biography of Planck and the history of Germany are lucidly and skillfully intertwined.

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.

Pickering is a member of the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, NJ 08540 and
associate professor in the Department of Sociology and Program in Science, Technology
and Society at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Urbana, 61801.

Advertisement

Follow The Scientist

icon-facebook icon-linkedin icon-twitter icon-vimeo icon-youtube
Advertisement

Stay Connected with The Scientist

  • icon-facebook The Scientist Magazine
  • icon-facebook The Scientist Careers
  • icon-facebook Neuroscience Research Techniques
  • icon-facebook Genetic Research Techniques
  • icon-facebook Cell Culture Techniques
  • icon-facebook Microbiology and Immunology
  • icon-facebook Cancer Research and Technology
  • icon-facebook Stem Cell and Regenerative Science
Advertisement
Advertisement
Mettler Toledo
BD Biosciences
BD Biosciences