Planck: Driven by Vision, Broken by War

Brandon R. Brown. Oxford Univ, $29.95 (272p) ISBN 978-0-19-021947-5
Max Planck (1858–1947) was Germany’s most influential scientist at a time when German science led the world. Brown, a professor of physics at the University of San Francisco, combines the story of Planck’s lucid, thoughtful life with that of physics’ golden age. In 1900, Planck—a 42-year-old middle-class Prussian professor, respected though not considered a prodigy—solved a major problem in physics. Researchers assumed that radiation emitted from any object increases smoothly with temperature, but their equations never worked. The equation Planck developed worked beautifully, yet it assumed that radiation emerged in discrete clumps. This made no sense according to classical physics and marked the beginning of the quantum revolution. Brown emphasizes that while Planck remained conservative in character, he possessed the rare quality of never allowing prejudice to overrule facts. He quickly recognized Einstein’s brilliance and, despite being as sexist as his colleagues, he forced them to accept Lise Meitner, an Austrian Jew who became the University of Berlin’s first female science professor. Planck quietly defied Nazi racial laws, but eventually—and against his will—complied with orders to fire Jewish scientists. Planck had his flaws, but readers of this engrossing, insightful, and definitive biography will share Brown’s admiration and agree that he deserves his iconic reputation. (June)
Reviewed on: 03/16/2015
Release date: 06/01/2015
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