The Case Of Max Planck

By Philip Rubenstein

If the history of humanity and human knowledge proceeds by crises–by solving the problems and anomalies that arise as we reach the boundaries of our development or knowledge–then might it not be the case that if the path we have chosen at some past point is wrong or in error, that we must, of necessity, go back to that fork in the road and correct that choice? Or, if it is said that we cannot really go back in time, still we must go back and change our choices, our axiomatic orientation, thus to allow an actual change in path from here on, and to see what else was misled as a consequence of that event. It is often just such a rigorous journey that is rejected, sometimes merely out of the horror of the labors involved but, also, to what wreckage we may find on the way.

When we look at 20th century science, for all of its accomplishments, it rests, in the main, on achievements derived from the 18th and 19th century continuation of Leibniz’s tradition. In fact, much of the fundamental science of the present obscures that reality, and little of a fundamental nature, but confusion, has been added in this past century, except as derived from that obscured heritage.

If we look to the case of Planck and the attack on him, and his defense by Einstein and himself (as referred to recently by Lyn and Caroline Hartmann’s work), we find a very significant such point, much obscured. And seeing what was obscured is of great importance.

While others know this story far better and would wish to point out critical areas to fruitfully pursue, Planck’s quanta simultaneously upset two groups. The notion put forward by Boltzmann and those who viewed the universe as a simple continuum, was that the absorption and emission of radiant energy would occur in a way to conform to that uniformity, Thus, as an absorbing body was heated, it would emit through all frequencies. Since, however, the upward direction of increasing frequencies was infinitely larger, we would be led to “violet or ultra-violet catastrophe.” The predominant, and infinitely so, range would be in the upper frequencies. One might note how OFTEN these views lead to catastrophes—Olbers’ paradox, entropy, etc.

In reality, of course, this does not happen. In fact, the emissions peak, and fall off. Like other such cases, a real event is paradoxical from a given set of assumptions.

What solution is available? Planck ultimately, and with great thought, proposed that radiant energy is, in fact, emitted in quanta, such that a constant proportion exists between the frequency of radiation and a quantum in which it is released. That ratio is Planck’s constant, {h}. Thus, as the frequency increases, the “packets” or quanta likewise increase, thus the amount of work increases to accomplish this, and the condition is bounded such that the “catastrophe” fails to occur.

But this is a radical idea! The simple infinite continuum of spreading electromagnetic radiation is now transformed. In some way, individuals, singularities are formed and at increasing densities. This concept was anathema.

Further, as this applies to atoms and the like, an apparently predetermined ordering seemed to be placed–for example, in electron placing in atoms.

This prompted Rutherford to write to Bohr, who used this part of Planck, “it seems to me that you would have to assume that the electron knows beforehand where it is going to stop.” A response that resonated with the usual offense that philosophical empiricists feel at the nature of science.

Bohr himself was one of those who nonetheless attempted to contain Planck’s idea within the “either, or” scheme of “wave and particle” of the mechanistic outlook, by saying it is both—- embracing contradictions, so to speak.

This path was not unlike the Machians or positivists for whom science is not the search for truth, but merely for logically consistent systems, with which different formulations may be equally acceptable as long as the appearances are saved.

In fact, both the entropists and the positivists recoiled at precisely the concept that inorganic nature exhibited a density, ordering and creating individuals that mediate higher ordered processes. Thus, the challenge of the turn of the 19th century was placed before us with Planck’s concept, along with other similar ideas in physics, biology, etc. The 20th century chose to REJECT the continuation of the Leibniz tradition.

Planck, who was a conscious Leibnizian said in his autobiography:

“While the significance of the quantum of action for the interrelation between entropy and probability was thus conclusively established, the great part played by this new constant in the uniform regular occurrence of physical processes still remained an open question. I therefore tried immediately to weld the elementary action, {h}, somehow into the framework of classical theory. But in the face of all such attempts the constant chose itself to be obdurate…..

” My futile attempts to fit the elementary quantum of action somehow into the classical theory continued for a number of years and they cost me a great deal of effort. Many of my colleagues saw in this something bordering on a tragedy. But I feel differently about it, for the thorough enlightenment I thus received was all the more valuable. I know knew for a fact that the elementary quantum of action played a more significant part in physics than I had originally been inclined to suspect, and this recognition made me see clearly the need for the introduction of totally new methods of analysis and reasoning in the treatment of atomic problems.”

Einstein, brought to Berlin by Planck, contributed to developing Planck’s idea (of which relationship much could be said o significance for the political history of the 20th century). In a speech on Planck’s 60th birthday in 1918, he said:

“The supreme task of the physicist is to arrive at those universal laws from which the cosmos can be built up by pure deduction. There is no logical path to these laws; only intuition, resting on sympathetic understanding of experience, can reach them. In this methodological uncertainty, one might suppose that there were any number of possible systems of theoretical physics all equally well justified; and this opinion is no doubt correct, theoretically. But the development of physics has shown that at any given moment, out of all conceivable constructions, a single one has always proved itself decidedly superior to all the rest. Nobody who has really gone deeply into the matter will deny that in practice the world of phenomena uniquely determines the theoretical system, in spite of the fact that there is no logical bridge between phenomena and their theoretical principles; this is what Leibniz described so happily as a `pre-established harmony.’ Physicists often accuse epitstomologists of not paying sufficient attention to this fact. Here, it seems to me, lie the roots of the controversy carried some years ago between Mach and Planck.

“The longing to behold this pre-established harmony is the source of the inexhaustible patience and perseverance with which Planck has devoted himself, as we see, to the most general problems of our science, refusing to let himself be diverted to more grateful and more easily attained ends. I have often heard colleagues try to attribute this attitude of his to extraordinary will-power and discipline–wrongly, in my opinion. The state of mind which enables a man to do work of this kind is akin to that of the religious worshipper or the lover; the daily effort comes from no deliberate intention, or program, but straight from the heart..”

Much of the obfuscation of the 20th century could be corrected by returning to the mistaken path foisted by the likes of Bohr and formalism and discovering the true nature of Planck’s contribution.