The Sorrows of Physicist Max Planck

downloadConsider for a moment the sorrows of Max Planck, the theoretical physicist who originated quantum theory. In 1909, his wife, Marie Merck, died of tuberculosis. In 1914, his son, Erwin, was taken prisoner by the French during the First World War. Then his eldest son, Karl, was killed in 1916 at the Battle of Verdun.

Planck had twin daughters he adored—Emma and Grete. In 1917, Grete died in childbirth. Her twin sister Emma went to care for the surviving baby and soon fell in love with her sister’s husband. Soon after this, in 1918, Planck received the Nobel Prize for physics. The next year, 1919, his daughter Emma also died giving birth to her first child. 

15b1724e17e61199500377918a223cb85429ef79b3b8f1e8c0c4dbc5e4e039f3His troubles don’t stop there. When Planck was 74 years old, the Nazis seized power in Germany. This was 1933, the year my father was born. Planck stayed in Berlin in spite of the war, trying to move forward with his scientific work, hoping the political crisis would pass. It did not. At least not soon enough to spare him. In 1944, Allied bombing destroyed his home. He lost everything—scientific manuscripts and notes, diaries, family keepsakes, all he had accumulated over a lifetime—all burned up and gone.

A final blow came in 1945 when his son Erwin, the same one who had been captured by the French during World War I, was caught in a plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler and executed by the Gestapo. Planck had finally retreated from Berlin as the Allied forces advanced from all sides. In the end, Planck was taken by the Allies to a surviving relative in Gottingen where he died in 1947.


Whatever power held Max Planck together through all this loss is only hinted at by his most famous words: “Science cannot solve the ultimate mystery of nature, for in the final analysis we ourselves are part of the mystery we are trying to solve.” (Where is Science Going? — 1932)


About slcantwell25

A writer focused on the transforming power of memory, autism, parenting, and the ways we know what we know.
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