Planck: Driven by Vision, Broken by War

Planck: Driven by Vision, Broken by War
Brandon R. Brown
Oxford University Press  280pp  £20

The German physicist Max Planck published a ground-breaking paper in 1900 on thermal radiation and ‘unknowingly sparked the quantum revolution’. However, unlike his friend and contemporary Albert Einstein, who became a universally recognised celebrity physicist, famed for his theories of relativity, little is known about Planck outside the scientific community, something that this new biography by Brandon R. Brown seeks to rectify. Brown begins with a description of Planck’s status in the average text book: ‘In the typical side-column photo, we see him later in life: bald, and stern. He discovered quantum theory. He had a moustache. And that’s about it.’ 

Brown queries the discrepancy in renown between Einstein and Planck. Aside from differences in personality – Einstein enjoyed the spotlight and engaged enthusiastically with the media, while Planck was more reserved – there is simply a lack of primary documentation. In 1943 Planck’s family home in Berlin was bombed and his library, diaries and letters were lost forever. Driven by Vision, Broken by War pieces together what remains – mostly correspondence with other scientists, journalists and family members – to provide a moving account of Planck’s life story. 

Brown is keen to paint as full a portrait of Planck as possible; as father, husband and as someone whose life was shaped by a series of tumultuous events: the Franco-Prussian conflict, the unification of Germany and two World Wars. During these years Planck enjoyed the prestige of the 1918 Nobel Prize for Physics, but also suffered the tragic loss of all four of his children, including Erwin, who was executed in 1945 for plotting the assassination of Adolf Hitler. Planck was kind and devoted to his work and family. Yet he was immensely patriotic, perhaps naively so, and stubbornly refused to acknowledge the alarming implications of the new Reich government. 

Notably, Brown approaches his subject not ‘as a science historian’ but ‘as a physicist long fascinated by his breakthrough and haunted by those sad eyes’. This is certainly evident from the prose, which is lively and passionate. However, from a methodological perspective, there are occasional flaws. Brown adopts the speculative approach of a theoretical physicist and applies it with problematic results. There are endless passages where Brown imagines what Planck may have seen or done and countless instances of ‘if he had … he might have ...’ and ‘if he had passed by at this moment, he might have noticed ...’. Brown even devotes a chapter to a selection of books that ‘may’ have been salvaged from Planck’s home and brought to him. While imagination and empathy are crucial for a biographer, so is evidence and there is something frustrating about these well-meaning though frequently unsubstantiated accounts. 

Nevertheless Max Planck is a compelling character and Brown’s fervour is inspiring. He has done a great service by shedding light on the life and work of a very brilliant though troubled individual, ‘father of quantum theory’ and witness to the greatest upheavals of the 20th century.  

Giulia Miller is Affiliated Lecturer in Modern Hebrew at the University of Cambridge.  

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