Friday, December 09, 2011

Advent calender #9: Prof. Jolly's advice

When Max Planck had finished high school in 1874, he was unsure which career path to chose. He had many different talents and interests, and pondered becoming a concert pianist, or study classical philology, or maybe mathematics and physics. Planck's father, a professor of law, mediated an appointment with his colleague, physicist Philipp von Jolly, for Max to get some advice. Prof. Jolly was a bit gloomy about the prospects of physics, and didn't want to raise false hopes in the young man. As Max Planck remembered,

Als ich meine physikalischen Studien begann und bei meinem ehrwürdigen Lehrer Philipp von Jolly wegen der Bedingungen und Aussichten meines Studiums mir Rat erholte, schilderte mir dieser die Physik als eine hochentwickelte, nahezu voll ausgereifte Wissenschaft, die nunmehr, nachdem ihr durch die Entdeckung des Prinzips der Erhaltung der Energie gewissermassen die Krone aufgesetzt sei, wohl bald ihre endgültige stabile Form angenommen haben würde. Wohl gäbe es vielleicht in einem oder dem anderen Winkel noch ein Stäubchen oder ein Bläschen zu prüfen und einzuordnen, aber das System als Ganzes stehe ziemlich gesichert da, und die theoretische Physik nähere sich merklich demjenigen Grade der Vollendung, wie ihn etwa die Geometrie schon seit Jahrhunderten besitze. (Max Planck, Wege zur physikalischen Erkenntnis, S. Hirzel, 1933, p. 128)

Philipp von Jolly described physics as a highly developed, almost fully matured science, which was about to reach a final form, now that the principle of conservation of energy had been discovered. He thought that there may be a speck or a vesicle left to be studied and classified in one or the other angle of the field, but that as a whole, the system had a fairly safe standing, and that theoretical physics was approaching the same degree of perfection reached by geometry already centuries ago.

Max Planck did not let himself be dissuaded from studying physics by this assessment, and the rest is history.


  1. Hi Bee & Stefan,

    This is my favourite anecdote thus far as it connects those like Einstein to Max Planck as ones becoming physicists in finding that things are not as complete so as able to rest on its laurels. That is despite each having some differences of opinion regarding the nature of reality (particularly in regards to the reasons behind its apparent invariance), they each knew the foundations on which it rested more represented to be the shadows at best as Plato would have such to be referred.

    That’s I’ve always been more impressed with scientists that were uncomfortable with both what science is in respect to what they and it knows, as opposed to those that are comfortable with what science tells them, as to have them then not wish to look. So in the spirit of this post, science or me is to rather than simply believe in Santa Claus to show either how he can be found to be real in respect to the world or demonstrate rather why instead that he can’t.

    “It has been often said, and certainly not without justification, that the man of science is a poor philosopher. Why, then, should it not be the right thing for the physicist to let the philosopher to the philosophizing? Such might indeed be the right thing at a time when the physicist believes he has at his disposal a rigid system of fundamental concepts and fundamental laws which are also well established that waves of doubt cannot reach them; but, it cannot be right at a time when the very foundations of physics itself become problematic as they are now. At a time like the present, when experience forces us to seek a newer and more solid foundation, the physicist cannot simply surrender to the philosopher the critical contemplation of the theoretical foundations; for, he himself knows best, and feels more surely where the shoe pinches. In looking for a new foundation he must make clear in his own mind just how far such concepts which he uses are justified, and are necessities.”

    -Albert Einstein, Physics and Reality” , Journal of the Franklin Institute [Volume.221, No. 3, March 3, 1936



  2. Imagination is intelligence having fun. Managers cannot manage discovery, they can only manage to end it. Fix the problem, mourn the dead, and get on with the job.

  3. Although I don't usually remember the details (like who said this to Planck), I often wonder about how the adviser would react were he to somehow travel to our time (on a neutrino mobile, perhaps?) and learn what happened during just the first twenty years of the 20th century.

  4. "...theoretical physics was approaching the same degree of perfection reached by geometry already centuries ago."

    He was just as wrong about geometry!


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