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Max Planck and The Mind Behind All Matter
A man of science and faith who discovered a world.
by Joshua M. Moritz
When Max Planck entered the University of Munich in 1875 for his doctoral studies in physics, he was warned by Professor Philipp von Jolly that his chosen subject was more or less finished and that nothing new could be expected to be discovered1. Physics was almost complete, and only a few odds and ends remained to be tidied up. Planck, an extremely modest man with no interest in fame or worldly ambition, told Jolly that he "had no wish to make discoveries, but only to understand and perhaps to deepen the foundations already set."2 Planck would indeed come to deepen our understanding of physics, but in so doing, he would also begin a revolution in science that would shake the very bedrock of the foundations upon which physics is built.
A Reluctant Revolutionary
When Planck began his work, one of the few puzzles in physics that remained to be solved was the "blackbody problem." When an object—such as an iron horseshoe, a ceramic vase, or a piece of charcoal—is heated, it begins to emit light or electromagnetic radiation. The blackbody problem relates to the spectrum of energy that is emitted when an idealized physical body that perfectly absorbs all the light that strikes it—a blackbody—is heated.
According to the standard classical physics when Planck started his research, the heated light-producing electrons in a blackbody should produce unlimited energy as they vibrate at increasingly high frequencies. Experiments showed, however, that at the ultraviolet higher frequencies, the blackbody spectrum drops down to an energy level of zero.
After working on this problem for several years, in 1900, Planck realized that he could not solve the blackbody mystery in the terms which he—and everyone else at the time—had originally conceived it. Cautiously, Planck suggested a radical solution—that the amount of energy that a light wave exchanges with matter isn't linear or continuous, as postulated by classical physics, but rather is exchanged in discontinuous or discrete clumps.
Planck called these discrete clumps of energy quanta and proposed that the energy (E) of the light emitted from the heated blackbody comes only in integer multiples of h, a universal constant of calibration that is now known as Planck's constant. Planck said that an electron vibrating with a frequency f could only have an energy (E) of 1 hf, 2 hf, 3 hf, 4 hf, and so on. And with Planck's equation E=hf, quantum physics was born. In 1905, Albert Einstein then extended Plank's work and postulated that Planck's quanta of light were real physical particles—what we now call photons.
The Constants of Nature and the Mind of God
Planck believed that the laws of nature and constants of nature, such as Planck's constant h, ultimately found their source in the Transcendent Consciousness of the Creator. Such laws and constants of nature thus had "a superhuman significance" for Planck because they not only "cut into the bedrock of physical reality" but also ascended to a Mind beyond material reality.3
To understand the constants of nature was to disclose the beautiful thoughts of the Mind of God. According to Planck, the power of God's thoughts was expressed in the forces and energies that breathe vitality and form into material existence. As Planck explains:
"As a man who has devoted his whole life to the most clear-headed science, to the study of matter, I can tell you as a result of my research about atoms this much: There is no matter as such. All matter originates and exists only by virtue of a force which brings the particle of an atom to vibration and holds this most minute solar system of the atom together. We must assume behind this force is the existence of a conscious and intelligent Mind. This Mind is the matrix of all matter."4
A Clear Conscience in a Crumbling World
For Planck, the laws and constants of nature were also a testament to the faithfulness of God in a world that was falling apart. In the darkest days of Nazi Germany, Planck insisted that no amount of clever political propaganda could ever ultimately vanquish the reality of physical constants and physical theories that are transcendently true. Nature's laws and constants unified humanity into one brotherhood under the Creator of those laws.
Even though the Gestapo closely watched his every move, Planck declared that the constants and "natural laws are the same for men of all races and nations."5 Consequently, Planck refused to denounce Einstein's Theory of Relativity as "Jewish science." Instead, when filmed by the Nazis in 1942 as an icon of "German science," Planck praised Einstein's Relativity Theory on camera as "the completion and crown of the whole edifice of theoretical physics."6
As late as 1943, the Nazi censors had not noticed that Planck had officially rehabilitated Einstein's work right under their noses. And Planck refused to flinch even when faced with a room full of Nazi officers. In 1943 when Planck was invited to give a lecture at the Nazi Foreign Officers Club, he praised the "Jewish science" of Einstein that the Nazis attempted to silence. As eyewitness Swedish journalist Gunnar Pihl describes the scene:
"Planck talked about his views of existence. Quietly, humbly, wisely...He mentioned the Jew Einstein as a leader and way-shower in the world of thought. He looked beyond raw prejudices and fanatics, entirely regardless of where he was. With his gentle voice...he called forth a vision of the Divineness of life and its government by law...The little man in black had been too great to be affected by any Nazi efforts at change...It was like being present at a ceremony or a sermon. A violent contrast with the spirit of the place."7
Planck was a model of quiet yet bold resistance to his son Erwin, who followed his father's example by actively resisting the Nazi regime from its very start in 1933. Erwin Planck would eventually pay the ultimate price for his resistance and was condemned to death in late 1944 for his involvement in an attempt to assassinate Hitler on July 20, 1944. With a broken heart, Planck still counseled "a courageous perseverance in the struggle of life and a quiet submission to the will of the Higher Power." To the end of his life, Plank would cling firmly to the only possession that no worldly power could steal—"a clear conscience."8
A Champion of Science and Faith
As a brilliant scientist, Planck was also deeply devout. According to Planck, science was the systematic study of God's creation, and religious faith was the endpoint of all true science. As Plank explains:
Our drive toward unity obliges us to identify the world order of science with the God of religion. There is, however, this difference: for the religious man, God stands at the beginning; for the scientist, at the end, of all thinking. We must believe to act ethically, and we must act; society could not survive if its members went about without proven moral precepts or waited until acquiring wisdom to decide how to behave. Therefore each individual must strive to develop both sides of his nature, the religious and the scientific, which complete and complement one another: It is the steady, ongoing, never-slackening fight against skepticism and dogmatism, against unbelief and superstition, which religion and science wage together! The directing watchword in this struggle runs from the remotest past to the distant future: “On to God!"9
Helge Kragh, Quantum Generations: A History of Physics in the Twentieth Century, (Princeton University Press, 1999), 3.
John Heilbron, The Dilemmas of an Upright Man: Max Planck and the Fortunes of German Science (Harvard University Press, 2000) 10.
John D. Barrow, The Constants of Nature: From Alpha to Omega--The Numbers That Encode the Deepest Secrets of the Universe, (Knopf Doubleday, 2009) 26.
M. Planck, “Das Wesen der Materie” (The Nature of Matter), speech at Florence, Italy, 1944.
Max Planck, Scientific Autobiography and Other Papers (Philosophical Library, 1949), 93.
Heilbron, The Dilemmas of an Upright Man, 190.
Gunnar T. Pihl, Germany: The last phase (New York: Knopf, 1944) 228-29.
Heilbron, The Dilemmas of an Upright Man, 187.
Max Planck, “Religion and natural science,” in Scientific Autobiography and Other Papers, 187.
Main image source: www.universetoday.com
About Joshua M. Moritz
Joshua M. Moritz, Ph.D., is Lecturer of Philosophical Theology and the Natural Sciences at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, Adjunct Professor of Philosophy at the University of San Francisco, and Managing Editor of the journal Theology and Science.