Max Planck and how the dramatic birth of quantum physics changed the world


This is the first in a series of articles about the birth of quantum physics.

Now we live in the digital age. The technological marvels that surround us are something we owe to the 100 or so physicists who tried to figure out how atoms work in the early 1900s. Little did he know what his bold, creative thinking would become a few decades later.

The quantum revolution was a very difficult process of letting go of old ways of thinking, ways that had shaped science since Galileo and Newton. These habits were firmly rooted in the concept of determinism – simply put, scientists believed that physical causes could be predicted, or that nature followed a simple sequence. The ideal behind this worldview was that nature showed intelligence, that she followed rational laws like clockwork. It took enormous intellectual courage and imagination to give up this way of thinking. This is a story that needs to be told over and over again.

unexpected radiation

The Quantum Age was the result of a series of laboratory discoveries in the late 19th century that could not be explained by the prevailing classical worldview, a view based on Newtonian mechanics, electromagnetism, and thermodynamics (the physics of heat). The first problem seems simple enough: hot objects emit a certain type of radiation. For example, you emit radiation in the infrared spectrum because your body temperature hovers around 98°F. A candle glows brighter in the visible spectrum because it is hotter. So the question is to find the relationship between the temperature of an object and its brightness. Simply put, physicists generally don’t study hot objects, but what happens to a cavity when it is heated. And then it got weird.

The problem he described is known as black-body radiation, electromagnetic radiation trapped in a closed cavity. Black-body here simply means an object that emits radiation on its own, without anything getting in. By drilling a hole in the cavity to study the properties of this radiation and to study the leakage of radiation, it became clear that the size and material of the cavity did not matter. The only thing that matters is the temperature in the oven cavity. Because the cavity is hot, atoms from the walls will generate radiation that fills the space.

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Physics at the time predicted that the cavity would be largely filled with high-energy or high-frequency radiation. But this was not what the experiments revealed. Instead, he showed that there is a distribution of electromagnetic waves in the cavity with different frequencies. Some waves dominate the spectrum, but not the highest or lowest frequencies. How is this possible?

a quantum pint

The problem inspired German physicist Max Planck, who wrote in his scientific autobiography that this [experimental result] something represents the Absolute, and as I had always regarded the discovery of the Absolute as the supreme goal of all scientific activity, I eagerly set to work.

Plank fought back. On October 19, 1900, he announced to the Berlin Physical Society that he had obtained a formula that matched the results of the experiments. But being fit wasn’t enough. As he later wrote, “The day I drafted this law I began to dedicate it to the task of giving it real physical meaning.” Why does this one fit and the other one doesn’t?

While trying to explain the physics behind his formula, Planck came up with the radical idea that atoms don’t emit radiation continuously, but in discrete multiples of a fundamental amount. Atoms handle energy the way we handle money, always in multiples of the smallest amounts. One dollar equals 100 cents and ten dollars equals 1,000 cents. All financial transactions in the US are in multiples of one percent. For black body radiation with its many waves of different frequencies, each frequency is related to a minimum proportional to the “penny” of energy released. The higher the frequency of the radiation, the greater the “percentage”. The mathematical formula for this “minimum percentage” of energy is E = hf, where E is the energy, f is the frequency of the radiation, and h is Planck’s constant.

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Planck found his worth by adapting his formula to an experimental black-body curve. radiation of a certain frequency can only appear as multiples of the fundamental “cent”, which he later called quantity, a word meaning part of something in Late Latin. As the great Russian-American physicist George Gamow once pointed out, Planck’s hypothesis of the quantum created a world where you could drink a pint of beer or no beer at all, but nothing in between.

quantum blindness

Planck was very satisfied with the results of his quantum hypothesis. In fact, he has spent years trying to explain the existence of quantization of energy using classical physics. He was a reluctant revolutionary, guided by a deep sense of scientific integrity to propose an idea with which he was not comfortable. As he wrote in his autobiography:

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“My futile attempts… to somehow fit the quantum… into classical theory continued for many years, and they gave me the opportunity to put in a lot of effort. Many of my colleagues saw this as something bordering on tragedy. But I think otherwise… I now knew that… quantum… played a much more important role in physics than I had originally suspected, and this recognition clearly made me see the need to introduce entirely new methods of analysis and logic in dealing with atomic problems.”

Plank was right. The quantum theory he helped propose developed into an even more profound departure from older physics than Einstein’s theory of relativity. Classical physics is based on continuous processes, such as planets revolving around the sun or waves propagating on water. Our entire perception of the world is based on events that are constantly evolving in space and time.

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The world of the very young works very differently. It is a world of unbalanced processes, a world where rules that deviate from our day-to-day experience rule over bizarre behavior. We are actually blind to the radical nature of the quantum world. The energy we usually deal with consists of such a large amount of energy quanta that the “granularity” obscures our ability to see it. It’s like we live in a world of billionaires, where the one percent has a totally negligible amount of wealth. But in the world of very small, percentage or quantum rules.

Planck’s hypothesis changed physics and ultimately the world. He couldn’t have predicted it. Neither could Einstein, Bohr, Schrödinger, Heisenberg and other quantum pioneers. He knew he had done something different. But no one could have predicted the extent to which quantum physics would change the world.




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