Max Planck: The Gates of the Temple of Science


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On 23 April 1858, Max Planck (1858–1947) was born. A German theoretical physicist, his earliest work was on the subject of thermodynamics, an interest he acquired from his studies under Kirchhoff, whom he greatly admired, and very considerably from reading R. Clausius’ publications. He published papers on entropy, on thermoelectricity and on the theory of dilute solutions.

At the same time also the problems of radiation processes engaged his attention and he showed that these were to be considered as electromagnetic in nature. From these studies he was led to the problem of the distribution of energy in the spectrum of full radiation. Experimental observations on the wavelength distribution of the energy emitted by a black body as a function of temperature were at variance with the predictions of classical physics. Planck was able to deduce the relationship between the energy and the frequency of radiation. In a paper published in 1900, he announced his derivation of the relationship: this was based on the revolutionary idea that the energy emitted by a resonator could only take on discrete values or quanta. The energy for a resonator of frequency v is hv where h is a universal constant, now called Planck’s constant.

This was not only Planck’s most important work but also marked a turning point in the history of physics. The importance of the discovery, with its far-reaching effect on classical physics, was not appreciated at first. However the evidence for its validity gradually became overwhelming as its application accounted for many discrepancies between observed phenomena and classical theory. Among these applications and developments may be mentioned Einstein’s explanation of the photoelectric effect.

In 1918, he won the Nobel Prize in Physics for his development of quantum theory. Planck’s constant is named for him, a foundation of quantum formulation. He was revered by his colleagues not only for the importance of his discoveries but for his great personal qualities. He also organized conferences and authored philosophical works, among them Science and Faith (1930) and Where is Science Going? (1932).

Albert Einstein expresses his appreciation on the occasion of Planck’s 60th birthday in 1918 with these words:

“The longing to behold this pre-established harmony [from Leibnitz] is the source of the inexhaustible patience and perseverance with which Planck has devoted himself, as we see, to the most general problems of our science, refusing to let himself be diverted to more grateful and more easily attained ends. I have often heard colleagues try to attribute this attitude of his to extraordinary will-power and discipline — wrongly, in my opinion. The state of mind which enables a man to do work of this kind is akin to that of the religious worshiper or the lover; the daily effort comes from no deliberate intention or program, but straight from the heart. There he sits, our beloved Planck, and smiles inside himself at my childish playing-about with the lantern of Diogenes. Our affection for him needs no threadbare explanation. May the love of science continue to illumine his path in the future and lead him to the solution of the most important problem in present-day physics, which he has himself posed and done so much to solve. May he succeed in uniting quantum theory with electrodynamics and mechanics in a single logical system.”


Planck was twice married. Upon his appointment, in 1885, to Associate Professor in his native town Kiel he married a friend of his childhood, Marie Merck, who died in 1909. He remarried her cousin Marga von Hösslin. Three of his children died young, leaving him with two sons.

Planck faced a troubled and tragic period in his life during the period of the Nazi government in Germany, when he felt it his duty to remain in his country but was openly opposed to some of the Government’s policies, particularly as regards the persecution of the Jews. He suffered a personal tragedy when one of his sons, Ernst Planck, who was active in the Nazi resistance, was executed for his part in an unsuccessful attempt to assassinate Hitler in 1944.

Sources: , Nobel Lectures, Physics 1901-1921, Where is Science Going (Norton Press, 1932)Principles of Research: address by Albert Einstein (1918)
(Physical Society, Berlin, for Max Planck’s sixtieth birtday)

Image: American Institute of Physics.


William Henry Bragg: We Need Both Religion and Science



On 12 March 1942, Sir William Henry Bragg (1862–1942) passed away in London, UK.

With his son, William Lawrence Bragg (1890–1971), William Henry Bragg was co-awarded the 1915 Nobel Prize in Physics, a unique Nobel honor shared by a father and son: “for their services in the analysis of crystal structure by means of X-rays.” The mineral Braggite is named after him and his son.

Quote from Sir William Henry Bragg (1862–1942):

“From religion comes a man’s purpose; from science, his power to achieve it. Sometimes people ask if religion and science are not opposed to one another. They are: in the sense that the thumb and fingers of my hands are opposed to one another. It is an opposition by means of which anything can be grasped.”

Source:  “The Art of the Physicist.” (Abdus Salam). New Scientist. Vol. 35 (20 Jul 1967): 163.

Joseph Fraunhofer: Ora et Labora



On 06 March 1787, Joseph Fraunhofer (1787–1826) was born in Straubing, Germany. Though orphaned at the age of 11, he was able to apprentice as a glassmakers Philipp Anton Weichelsberger and Georg von Reichenbach, where the undertook research on optical glasses and achromatic telescope lenses at the Institute at Benediktbeuern, a secularised Benedictine monastery. His work led to the discovery of the Fraunhofer lines, i.e. the absorption spectrum of solar rays.

More information on the Benedictine monastery.

“In order to construct his lenses, Fraunhofer drew upon the architectural space and layout of a secularized Benedictine monastery — an architecture that instantiated three elements critical to the Rule of Saint Benedict: labor, silence and secrecy. A study of Fraunhofer can, therefore, offer an insight into the more general relationships between the scientific enterprise and architectural space…

“Entrance to Fraunhofer’s laboratory (B in figure 3.10) was limited to those workers of Benediktbeuern who had optical expertise. The laboratory was built within the monks’ cells, which were designed to reflect the importance of silence in the Rule of St. Benedict. Although it was therefore private, visiting opticians and experimental natural philosophers were taken there so Fraunhofer could demonstrate to them his technique of calibrating achromatic lenses. By showing visitors how he used the dark lines of the spectrum in producing achromatic lenses, rather than how the lenses were actually constructed, Fraunhofer ensured his institute’s optical hegemony.”

According the The Catholic Encyclopedia (1909):

“As a Christian, Fraunhofer was faithful and observant even in details. The simple inscription on his tomb reads: ‘Approximaverit sidera’ [He will have drawn near the stars]. His important memoirs were first published in ‘Denkschriften’ of the Royal Bavarian Academy of Sciences, the one on refraction, spectra, and lines in 1817, and that on diffraction and its laws in 1821.”

Jackson, Myles W. Spectrum of Belief: Joseph von Fraunhofer and the Craft of Precision Optics. (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2000), 77,80.
Fox, William. “Joseph von Fraunhofer.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 6. (New York, NY: Robert Appleton Company, 1909).
Images: “Joseph von Fraunhofer” by Rudolf Wimmer (1849–1915), Deutsches Museum, Berlin;  Book cover:

Lawrence Joseph Henderson – Anthropic Principle: Cosmos Created for Human Life (‘Anthropos’)



On 10 February 1942, Lawrence Joseph Henderson (1878–1942) passed away in Cambridge, MA.

Educated at Harvard Medical School (MD, 1902), he was known for the Henderson–Hasselbalch equation (pH = pKₐ + log₁₀ ([A]/[HA])), which is used to calculate the pH of a buffered solution. The standard Henderson–Hasselbalch equation for the pH of a one-buffer solution can be generalized for ≥2 buffers, viz. pH = pKₐ + log₁₀ ([A]/[HA]) (one buffer); pH = pKₐ + log₁₀ ([CB] / ([CA]-[CB]) ) (two buffers).

lawrence joseph henderson books

Prof. Henderson had also authored several texts on the philosophical and scientific basis of the anthropic principle, including The Fitness of the Environment (1913) and The Order of Nature (1917). The first of these texts had included quoted passages on the theological views of William Whewell (1794–1866), Francis Bacon (1561–1626), Josiah Parsons Cooke (1827–1894), Henri-Louis Bergson (1859–1941) and others. It concluded with the reflection:

“The properties of matter and the course of cosmic evolution are now seen to be intimately related to the structure of the living being and to its activities; they become therefore, far more important in biology than has been previously suspected. For the whole evolutionary process, both cosmic and organic, is one, and the biologist may now rightly regard the universe in its very essence as biocentric.”

His Harvard University remembrance noted:

“…A member of the Faculties of Arts and Sciences and of Medicine as head of the Fatigue Laboratory, and as Chairman of the Society of Fellows, he exemplified that breadth of scholarship which overlaps artificial departmental barriers; and his work was animated by a consuming interest in the social implications of science and education. In the Society of Fellows, which brings together a group concerned with independent studies in a variety of fields, he found a congenial outlet for his catholic interest in scholarship and in young men seriously devoted to its pursuit.”

Righetti, Pier Giorgio. Immobilized pH gradients: Theory and Methodology. Vol. 3. (Amsterdam, NL: Elsevier, 1990), 55-56.
Henderson, Lawrence J. The Fitness of the Environment. (New York, NY: MacMillan Co., 1913), 312.
“Report of the President of Harvard College and Reports of Departments,” 1943 Edition. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1943), 26.
Image: Painting by Kenneth Frazier (1867–1949) (© Harvard Art Museum).

Rudolf Mössbauer: The Universal Language of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences


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On 31 January 1929, Rudolf Mössbauer (1929 – 2011) was born in Munich, Germany.

The 1961 Nobel Prize in Physics was co-awarded to Dr. Mössbauer, with one half for his “researches concerning the resonance absorption of gamma radiation and his discovery in this connection of the effect which bears his name,” along with Robert Hofstadter (1915–1990) for “studies of electron scattering in atomic nuclei and for his thereby achieved discoveries concerning the structure of the nucleons.”

He was made a member of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences on 10 April 1970, and had written two articles for the Pontifical journal Scripta Varia:

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— Mössbauer, Rudolf. “Physics in the Last Century and in the Future.” Science and the Future of Mankind. Pontifical Academy of Sciences. Scripta Varia 99. Vatican City, 2001.

— Mössbauer, Rudolf. “Science and Education.” The Challenges for Science. Education for the Twenty-First Century. Pontifical Academy of Sciences. Scripta Varia 104. Vatican City, 2002.

When he passed away in 2011, the Pontifical Academy of Sciences provided the following biography, quote: “Rudolf Mößbauer was born on 31 January 1929 in Munich, Germany. He was a talented piano player but decided to study physics at the Technical University of Munich (then called Technische Hochschule). He received his doctoral degree under Professor Heinz Maier-Leibniz in 1958. Since the Technical University was overcrowded with students, he carried out his experiments at the Max-Planck Institute for Experimental Medicine at Heidelberg. After graduating he continued this work for another two years as an assistant at the Technical University. During his experiments he observed for the first time what is now called the Mößbauer effect … The journal Nature writes in its obituary: ‘Mößbauer saw Science as a language connecting all of the people in the world’ … The Pontifical Academy of Sciences is proud to have counted Rudolf Mößbauer among its members.”

Hänsch, Theodor. “Rudolf Ludwig Mössbauer.” Pontifical Academy of Sciences.
Images: Mössbauer commemorative stamp (Republic of Gabon);  © Pontifical Academy of Sciences (PAS);

Robert R. Wilson: Faith to Build A Cathedral


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On 16 January 2000, Prof. Robert Rathbun Wilson (1914–2000) passed away in Ithaca, NY. He was a significant figure in the establishment of Fermilab in DuPage, Illinois.

After completing his PhD with E.O. Lawrence, with a dissertation “Theory of the Cyclotron” (1940), he joined Cornell University where he and his colleagues built four electron synchrotrons. Wilson was made the director of the National Accelerator Laboratory in 1967, subsequently known as the Fermilab, for which he oversaw its construction, completing the facility on time and under budget.

The building named Wilson Hall at Fermilab was designed to resemble a medieval French cathedral, Beauvais Cathedral (A.D. 1225-1568). This is his recollection: Wilson, Robert R. “Starting Fermilab.” Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, Batavia, Illinois. Published 1992.

12552611_1037368019667682_5067069699540962251_n“To decide how high the ‘Lab’ building ought to be, I went up in a helicopter and had the pilot hover at various altitudes as I plotted an ‘aesthetic factor’ as a function of height. The curve rose sharply to about 75 ft where it began to flatten as the Fox River Valley came into view. The sky, the sunsets, the Illinois landscape, all looked better at the higher levels, as it had from the tenth floor of the Oak Brook office building. I concluded that the building should be at least 200 ft tall, and taller if possible (it turned out to be 250 ft).

“Years earlier, I had been delightfully involved with the question of height while driving from Paris, France, to see Chartres Cathedral. As you go along, at first you see it, then you don’t, then it seems to flirt with you, and finally bursts out in all its radiant splendor. Perhaps it was hubris to hope for a similar effect on approaching Fermilab. Ultimately, it was not Chartres, but Beauvais Cathedral that was to have a closer resemblance to the Central Lab.”

In an interview with American Institute of Physics, Prof. Wilson discussed the religious aspects of his upbringing in Big Piney, Wyoming:

“[Robert R. Wilson]: ‘In Big Piney there was no church. Eventually there was one for all of the religions, which took turns in having their services there. But men considered church to be just for women. The men, in the tradition of the mountain men, had no religion and considered it a womanly thing. So, exposed to men, then, I was not religious; exposed to my grandmother, I was deeply religious. Sort of a yin and a yang, as it were. Manliness was identified with independence and freedom — we made a great deal of that — not working for wages, all those cliches.’

“[Interviewer]: ‘So you perhaps had a religion inside but not so much the external observances?’

“[Wilson]: ‘Yes. On the other hand there was the feminine part that is received from ones mother. My mother was not particularly religious but my grandmother was deeply religious.’ ”

Wilson, Robert R. “Starting Fermilab.” Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, Batavia, Illinois. Published 1992.
“AIP Interview of Robert R. Wilson by Spencer Weart.” 19 May 1977. Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics, College Park, MD USA.
Images: Cern Courier Newspaper (2000)Wide-wallpapers(dot)net.

Carl David Anderson: Harmonies of the Creator’s Symphony


On 11 January 1991, Prof. Carl David Anderson (1905–1991) passed away in San Marino, California. He shared the 1936 Nobel Prize with Dr. Victor Hess of Fordham University for their discovery of the positron, a particle with the same mass as an electron, though with a positive charge, which initiated the field of anti-matter physics.

A newspaper reported the discovery as follows:

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He was married to Lorraine Bergman in 1946, at a ceremony at a Seventh Day Adventist Church in Santa Barbara, CA, a day which he later stated was “the most important event in my life.”

A remembrance by his daughter-in-law, Melanie Marie Anderson, recalled:

“Carl Anderson was a remarkable man. Not only was he one of the great scientists of our time, he was also sensitive, caring, and extraordinarily humble. One may say these characteristics are somewhat conflicting – that a scientist is typically abstract, mysterious and often times detached from our society. So how can such a person be sensitive to the trivial frivolities of life? For Carl, his sensitive nature along with his logical thought was so balanced that many found him to be quite intriguing…

512OC2MPS+L._SX362_BO1,204,203,200_“He viewed science with the same reverence and awe as he did when he experienced the beauty of nature in his climb to one of the world’s highest mountain peaks or when he looked into the eyes of his newborn grandchildren for the first time. To him, the elegance of science and the beauty of life blended into a harmonious symphony that was composed by our great Creator. He was always in tune with his world around him, yet he had a gift of being able to sense and understand our world and its complexities as many of us are unable to. He was able to journey into his mind and travel into the unseen worlds of cosmic rays and particle physics to unravel some of the greatest mysteries of our universe. I feel blessed to have known this man… I will forever view our world a little differently now. I leave with you a thought that I was inspired to write as a tribute to my dear father-in-law who always said to me, ‘take time to reflect…’ Science is the silent, unseen splendor behind the forces of nature and in turn, nature responds to its silent partner with the gift of life and the wondrous beauties of our world.”

Davis, Watson. “Particle of Matter Christened ‘Positron’.” The Catalina Islander. 1 March 1933: 8.
Anderson, Carl D. The Discovery of Anti-matter: The Autobiography of Carl David Anderson, the Youngest Man to Win the Nobel Prize. Ed. Richard J. Weiss (River Edge, NJ: World Scientific, 1999), 128-129; preface x.  Image: