About Max Theodor von Laue, Nobel Prize in Physics, 1914
Max Theodor Felix von Laue (9 October 1879 – 24 April 1960) was a German physicist who won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1914 for his discovery of the diffraction of X-rays by crystals. In addition to his scientific endeavors with contributions in optics, crystallography, quantum theory, superconductivity, and the theory of relativity, he had a number of administrative positions which advanced and guided German scientific research and development during four decades. A strong objector to National Socialism, he was instrumental in re-establishing and organizing German science after World War II.
Laue was born in Pfaffendorf, now part of Koblenz, to Julius Laue and Minna Zerrenner. In 1898, after passing his Abitur in Strassburg, he entered his compulsory year of military service, after which he began his studies in mathematics, physics, and chemistry, in 1899, at the University of Strassburg, the University of Göttingen, and the Ludwig Maximilians University of Munich (LMU). At Göttingen, he was greatly influenced by the physicists Woldemar Voigt and Max Abraham and the mathematician David Hilbert. After only one semester at Munich, he went to the Friedrich-Wilhelms-University of Berlin in 1902. There, he studied under Max Planck, who gave birth to the quantum theory revolution on 14 December 1900, when he delivered his famous paper before the Deutsche Physikalische Gesellschaft. At Berlin, Laue attended lectures by Otto Lummer on heat radiation and interference spectroscopy, the influence of which can be seen in Laue’s dissertation on interference phenomena in plane-parallel plates, for which he received his doctorate in 1903. Thereafter, Laue spent 1903 to 1905 at Göttingen. Laue completed his Habilitation in 1906 under Arnold Sommerfeld at LMU.
In 1906, Laue became a Privatdozent in Berlin and an assistant to Planck. He also met Albert Einstein for the first time; they became friends and Laue went on to contribute to the acceptance and development of Einstein’s theory of relativity. Laue continued as assistant to Planck until 1909. In Berlin, he worked on the application of entropy to radiation fields and on the thermodynamic significance of the coherence of light waves.
From 1909 to 1912, Laue was a Privatdozent at the Institute for Theoretical Physics, under Arnold Sommerfeld, at LMU. During the 1911 Christmas recess and in January 1912, Paul Peter Ewald was finishing the writing of his doctoral thesis under Sommerfeld. It was on a walk through the Englischer Garten in Munich in January, that Ewald told Laue about his thesis topic. The wavelengths of concern to Ewald were in the visible region of the spectrum and hence much larger than the spacing between the resonators in Ewald’s crystal model. Laue seemed distracted and wanted to know what would be the effect if much smaller wavelengths were considered. In June, Sommerfeld reported to the Physikalische Gesellschaft of Göttingen on the successful diffraction of x-rays by Laue, Paul Knipping and Walter Friedrich at LMU, for which Laue would be awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics, in 1914. While at Munich, he wrote the first volume of his book on relativity during the period 1910 to 1911.
In 1912, Laue was called to the University of Zurich as an extraordinarius professor of physics. In 1913, his father was raised to the ranks of hereditary nobility; Laue then became 'Max von Laue'.
From 1914 to 1919, Laue was at the University of Frankfurt as ordinarius professor of theoretical physics. From 1916, he was engaged in vacuum tube development, at the University of Würzburg, for use in military telephony and wireless communications.
In 1919, Laue was called to the University of Berlin as ordinarius professor of theoretical physics, a position he held until 1943, when he was declared emeritus, with his consent and one year before the mandatory retirement age. At the university in 1919, other notables were Walther Nernst, Fritz Haber, and James Franck. Laue, as one of the organizers of the weekly Berlin Physics Colloquium, typically sat in the front row with Nernst and Einstein, who would come over from the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Institut für Physik in Berlin-Dahlem, where he was the director. Among Laue’s notable students at the university were Leó Szilárd, Fritz London, Max Kohler, and Erna Weber. In 1921, he published the second volume of his book on relativity.
As a consultant to the Physikalisch-Technische Reichsanstalt (PTR), Laue met Walther Meissner who was working there on superconductivity. Meissner had discovered that a weak magnetic field decays rapidly to zero in the interior of a superconductor, which is known as the Meissner effect. Laue showed in 1932 that the threshold of the applied magnetic field which destroys superconductivity varies with the shape of the body. Laue published a total of 12 papers and a book on superconductivity. One of the papers was co-authored with Fritz London and his brother Heinz. Meissner published a biography on Laue in 1960.
The Kaiser-Wilhelm Gesellschaft zur Förderung der Wissenschaften (Today: Max-Planck Gesellschaft zur Förderung der Wissenschaften) was founded in 1911. Its purpose was to promote the sciences by founding and maintaining research institutes. One such institute was the Kaiser-Wilhelm Institut für Physik (KWIP) founded in Berlin-Dahlem in 1914, with Einstein as director. Laue was a trustee of the institute from 1917, and in 1922 he was appointed deputy director, whereupon Laue took over the administrative duties from Einstein. Einstein was traveling abroad when Adolf Hitler became Chancellor in January 1933, and Einstein did not return to Germany. Laue then became acting director of the KWIP, a position he held until 1946 or 1948, except for the period 1935 to 1939, when Peter Debye was director. In 1943, to avoid casualties to the personnel, the KWIP moved to Hechingen. It was at Hechingen that Laue wrote his book on the history of physics Geschichte der Physik, which was eventually translated into seven other languages.
Opposition to Nazism
Laue opposed National Socialism in general and their Deutsche Physik in particular – the former persecuted the Jews, in general, and the latter, among other things, put down Einstein’s theory of relativity as Jewish physics. Laue secretly helped scientific colleagues persecuted by National Socialist policies to emigrate from Germany, but he also openly opposed them. An address on 18 September 1933 at the opening of the physics convention in Würzburg, opposition to Johannes Stark, an obituary note on Fritz Haber in 1934, and attendance at a commemoration for Haber are examples which clearly illustrate Laue’s courageous, open opposition:
Laue, as chairman of the Deutsche Physikalische Gesellschaft, gave the opening address at the 1933 physics convention. In it, he compared the persecution of Galileo and the oppression of his scientific views on the Solar theory of Copernicus to the then conflict and persecution over the theory of relativity by the proponents of Deutsche Physik, against the work of Einstein, labeled “Jewish physics.”
Johannes Stark, who had received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1919, wished to become the Führer of German physics and was a proponent of Deutsche Physik. Against the unanimous advice of those consulted, Stark was appointed President of the PTR in May 1933. However, Laue successfully blocked Stark’s regular membership in the Prussian Academy of Sciences.
Haber received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1918. In spite of this and his many other contributions to Germany, he was forced to emigrate from Germany as a result of the Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service, which removed Jews from their jobs. Laue’s obituary note praising Haber and comparing his forced emigration to the expulsion of Themistocles from Athens was a direct affront to the policies of National Socialism. In connection with Haber, Planck and Laue organized a commemoration event held in Berlin-Dahlem on 29 January 1935, the first anniversary of Haber’s death – attendance at the event by professors in the civil service had been expressly forbidden by the government. While many scientific and technical personnel were represented at the memorial by their wives, Laue and Wolfgang Heubner were the only two professors to attend. This was yet another blatant demonstration of Laue’s opposition to National Socialism. The date of the first anniversary of Haber’s death was also one day before the second anniversary of National Socialism seizing power in Germany, thus further increasing the affront given by holding the event.
The speech and the obituary note earned Laue government reprimands. Furthermore, in response to Laue blocking Stark’s regular membership in the Prussian Academy of Sciences, Stark, in December 1933, had Laue sacked from his position as advisor to the PTR, which Laue had held since 1925. Chapters 4 and 5, in Welker’s Nazi Science: Myth, Truth, and the Atomic Bomb, present a more detailed account of the struggle by Laue and Planck against the Nazi takeover of the Prussian Academy of Sciences.
Hidden Nobel prize
When Nazi Germany invaded Denmark in World War II, the Hungarian chemist George de Hevesy dissolved the gold Nobel Prizes of von Laue and James Franck in aqua regia to prevent the Nazis from discovering them (it was illegal at the time to send gold out of the country, and were it discovered that Laue had done so, he could have faced prosecution in Germany.) Hevesy placed the resulting solution on a shelf in his laboratory at the Niels Bohr Institute. After the war, he returned to find the solution undisturbed and precipitated the gold out of the acid. The Nobel Society then re-cast the Nobel Prizes using the original gold.
On 23 April 1945, French troops entered Hechingen, followed the next day by a contingent of Operation Alsos – an operation to investigate the German nuclear energy effort, seize equipment, and prevent German scientists from being captured by the Soviets. The scientific advisor to the Operation was the Dutch-American physicist Samuel Goudsmit, who, adorned with a steel helmet, appeared at Laue’s home. Laue was taken into custody and taken to Huntington, England, and interned at Farm Hall, with other scientists thought to be involved in nuclear research and development.
While incarcerated, Laue was a reminder to the other detainees that one could survive the Nazi reign without having “compromised”; this alienated him from others being detained. During his incarceration, Laue wrote a paper on the absorption of x-rays under the interference conditions, and it was later published in Acta Crystallographica. On 2 October 1945, Laue, Otto Hahn, and Werner Heisenberg, were taken to meet with Henry Hallett Dale, president of the Royal Society, and other members of the Society. There, Laue was invited to attend the 9 November 1945 Royal Society meeting in memory of the German physicist Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen, who discovered X-rays; permission was, however, not forthcoming from the military authorities detaining von Laue.
Laue was returned to Germany early in 1946. He went back to being acting director of the KWIP, which had been moved to Göttingen. It was also in 1946 that the Kaiser-Wilhelm Gesellschaft was renamed the Max-Planck Gesellschaft, and, likewise, the Kaiser-Wilhelm Institut für Physik became the Max-Planck Institut für Physik. Laue also became an adjunct professor at the University of Göttingen. In addition to his administrative and teaching responsibilities, Laue wrote his book on superconductivity, Theorie der Supraleitung, and revised his books on electron diffraction, Materiewellen und ihre Interferenzen, and the first volume of his two-volume book on relativity. In July 1946, Laue went back to England, only four months after having been interned there, to attend an international conference on crystallography. This was a distinct honor, as he was the only German invited to attend. He was extended many courtesies by the British officer who escorted him there and back, and a well-known English crystallographer as his host; Laue was even allowed to wander around London on his own free will.
After the war, there was much to be done in re-establishing and organizing German scientific endeavors. Laue participated in some key roles. In 1946, he initiated the founding of the Deutsche Physikalische Gesellschaft in only the British Occupation Zone, as the Allied Control Council would not initially allow organizations across occupation zone boundaries. During the war, the PTR had been dispersed; von Laue, from 1946 to 1948, worked on its re-unification across three zones and its location at new facilities in Braunschweig. Additionally, it took on a new name as the Physikalisch-Technische Bundesanstalt, but administration was not taken over by Germany until after the formation of West Germany on 23 May 1949. Circa 1948, the President of the American Physical Society asked Laue to report on the status of physics in Germany; his report was published in 1949 in the American Journal of Physics. In 1950, Laue participated in the creation of the Verband Deutscher Physikalischer Gesellschaften, formerly affiliated under the Nordwestdeutsche Physikalische Gesellschaft.
In April 1951, Laue became director of the Max-Planck Institut für physikalische Chemie und Elektrochemie, a position he held until 1959. In 1953, at the request of Laue, the Institute was renamed the Fritz Haber Institut für physikalische Chemie und Elektrochemie der Max-Planck Gesellschaft.
It was in 1913 that Laue’s father, Julius Laue, a civil servant in the military administration, was raised into the ranks of hereditary nobility. Thus Max Laue became Max von Laue. Laue married Magdalene Degen, while he was a Privatdozent at LMU. They had two children.
Among Laue’s chief recreational activities were mountaineering, motoring in his automobile, motor-biking, sailing, and skiing. While not a mountain climber, he did enjoy hiking on the Alpine glaciers with his friends.
On 8 April 1960, while driving to his laboratory, Laue’s car was struck in Berlin by a motor cyclist, who had received his license only two days earlier. The cyclist was killed and Laue’s car was overturned. He died from his injuries sixteen days later on April 24.
- 1919: Corresponding member of the Prussian Academy of Sciences
- 1921: Regular member of the Prussian Academy of Sciences
- From 1921: Chairman of the physics commission of the Notgemeinschaft der Deutschen Wissenschaft (Renamed in 1937: Deutsche Gemeinschaft zur Erhaltung und Förderun der Forschung. No longer active by 1945.)
- From 1922: Member of the Board of Trustees of the Potsdam Astrophysics Observatory
- 1925 – 1933: Advisor to the Physikalisch-Technische Reichsanstalt (Today: Physikalisch-Technische Bundesanstalt). Laue had been sacked in 1933 from his advisory position by Johannes Stark, Nobel Prize recipient and President of the Physikalisch-Technische Reichsanstalt, in retribution for Laue’s open opposition to the Nazis by blocking Stark’s regular membership in the Prussian Academy of Sciences.
- 1931 – 1933: : Chairman of the Deutsche Physikalische Gesellschaft
- Memberships in the Russian Academy of Sciences, the Kant Society, the Austrian Academy of Sciences (1960), the American Physical Society, the Société Française de Physique and the Société Française de Mineralogie et Crystallographie.
- Corresponding Member of the Academies of Sciences of Göttingen, Munich, Turin, Stockholm, Rome (Papal), Madrid, the Accademia dei Lincei of Rome, and the Royal Society of London.
*Honours and awards
- 1914: Nobel Prize for Physics
- 1932: Max-Planck Medal of the Deutsche Physikalische Gesellschaft
- 1952: Knight of the Order Pour le Mérite
- 1953: Grand Cross with Star for Federal Services
- 1957: Officer of the Legion of Honour of France
- 1959: Helmholtz Medal of the East-Berlin Academy of Sciences
- Bimala-Churn-Law Gold Medal of the Indian Association at Calcutta