Eight Lectures on Theoretical Physics

Eight Lectures on Theoretical Physics

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by Max Planck, H. Ed. Planck

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In 1909 the great German physicist and Nobel Prize winner Max Planck (1858–1947) delivered a series of eight lectures at Columbia University giving a fascinating overview of the new state of physics, which he had played a crucial role in bringing about.
The first, third, fifth, and sixth lectures present his account of the revolutionary developments

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In 1909 the great German physicist and Nobel Prize winner Max Planck (1858–1947) delivered a series of eight lectures at Columbia University giving a fascinating overview of the new state of physics, which he had played a crucial role in bringing about.
The first, third, fifth, and sixth lectures present his account of the revolutionary developments occasioned when he first applied the quantum hypothesis to blackbody radiation. The reader is given an invaluable opportunity to witness Planck's thought processes both on the level of philosophical principles as well as their application to physical processes on the microscopic and macroscopic scales.
In the second and fourth lectures Planck shows how the new ideas of statistical mechanics transformed the understanding of chemical physics. The seventh lecture discusses the principle of least action, while the final one gives an account of the theory of special relativity, of which Planck had been an early champion.
These lectures are especially important since they reflect Planck's reconsiderations and rethinking of his original discovery of quantum theory. A new Introduction by Peter Pesic places this book in historical perspective among Planck's works and those of his contemporaries. Now available in this inexpensive edition, it will be of particular interest to students of modern physics and of the philosophy and history of science.

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Dover Publications
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Dover Books on Physics Series
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5.36(w) x 8.45(h) x 0.37(d)

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Eight Lectures on Theoretical Physics

By Max Planck, A. P. Wills

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 1998 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-15156-4




Colleagues, ladies and gentlemen: The cordial invitation, which the President of Columbia University extended to me to deliver at this prominent center of American science some lectures in the domain of theoretical physics, has inspired in me a sense of the high honor and distinction thus conferred upon me and, in no less degree, a consciousness of the special obligations which, through its acceptance, would be imposed upon me. If I am to count upon meeting in some measure your just expectations, I can succeed only through directing your attention to the branches of my science with which I myself have been specially and deeply concerned, thus exposing myself to the danger that my report in certain respects shall thereby have somewhat too subjective a coloring.

From those points of view which appear to me the most striking, it is my desire to depict for you in these lectures the present status of the system of theoretical physics. I do not say: the present status of theoretical physics; for to cover this far broader subject, even approximately, the number of lecture hours at my disposal would by no means suffice. Time limitations forbid the extensive consideration of the details of this great field of learning; but it will be quite possible to develop for you, in bold outline, a representation of the system as a whole, that is, to give a sketch of the fundamental laws which rule in the physics of today, of the most important hypotheses employed, and of the great ideas which have recently forced themselves into the subject. I will often gladly endeavor to go into details, but not in the sense of a thorough treatment of the subject, and only with the object of making the general laws more clear, through appropriate specially chosen examples. I shall select these examples from the most varied branches of physics.

If we wish to obtain a correct understanding of the achievements of theoretical physics, we must guard in equal measure against the mistake of overestimating these achievements, and on the other hand, against the corresponding mistake of underestimating them. That the second mistake is actually often made, is shown by the circumstance that quite recently voices have been loudly raised maintaining the bankruptcy and, débâcle of the whole of natural science. But I think such assertions may easily be refuted by reference to the simple fact that with each decade the number and the significance of the means increase, whereby mankind learns directly through the aid of theoretical physics to make nature useful for its own purposes. The technology of today would be impossible without the aid of theoretical physics. The development of the whole of electro-technics from galvanoplasty to wireless telegraphy is a striking proof of this, not to mention aerial navigation. On the other hand, the mistake of overestimating the achievements of theoretical physics appears to me to be much more dangerous, and this danger is particularly threatened by those who have penetrated comparatively little into the heart of the subject. They maintain that some time, through a proper improvement of our science, it will be possible, not only to represent completely through physical formulae the inner constitution of the atoms, but also the laws of mental life. I think that there is nothing in the world entitling us to the one or the other of these expectations. On the other hand, I believe that there is much which directly opposes them. Let us endeavor then to follow the middle course and not to deviate appreciably toward the one side or the other.

When we seek for a solid immovable foundation which is able to carry the whole structure of theoretical physics, we meet with the questions: What lies at the bottom of physics? What is the material with which it operates? Fortunately, there is a complete answer to this question. The material with which theoretical physics operates is measurements, and mathematics is the chief tool with which this material is worked. All physical ideas depend upon measurements, more or less exactly carried out, and each physical definition, each physical law, possesses a more definite significance the nearer it can be brought into accord with the results of measurements. Now measurements are made with the aid of the senses; before all with that of sight, with hearing and with feeling. Thus far, one can say that the origin and the foundation of all physical research are seated in our sense perceptions. Through sense perceptions only do we experience anything of nature; they are the highest court of appeal in questions under dispute. This view is completely confirmed by a glance at the historical development of physical science. Physics grows upon the ground of sensations. The first physical ideas derived were from the individual perceptions of man, and, accordingly, physics was subdivided into: physics of the eye (optics), physics of the ear (acoustics), and physics of heat sensation (theory of heat). It may well be said that so far as there was a domain of sense, so far extended originally the domain of physics. Therefore it appears that in the beginning the division of physics was based upon the peculiarities of man. It possessed, in short, an anthropomorphic character. This appears also, in that physical research, when not occupied with special sense perceptions, is concerned with practical life, and particularly with the practical needs of men. Thus, the art of geodesy led to geometry, the study of machinery to mechanics, and the conclusion lies near that physics in the last analysis had only to do with the sense perceptions and needs of mankind.

In accordance with this view, the sense perceptions are the essential elements of the world; to construct an object as opposed to sense perceptions is more or less an arbitrary matter of will. In fact, when I speak of a tree, I really mean only a complex of sense perceptions: I can see it, I can hear the rustling of its branches, I can smell its fragrance, I experience pain if I knock my head against it, but disregarding all of these sensations, there remains nothing to be made the object of a measurement, wherewith, therefore, natural science can occupy itself. This is certainly true. In accordance with this view, the problem of physics consists only in the relating of sense perceptions, in accordance with experience, to fixed laws; or, as one may express it, in the greatest possible economic accommodation of our ideas to our sensations, an operation which we undertake solely because it is of use to us in the general battle of existence.

All this appears extraordinarily simple and clear and, in accordance with it; the fact may readily be explained that this positivist view is quite widely spread in scientific circles today. It permits, so far as it is limited to the standpoint here depicted (not always done consistently by the exponents of positivism), no hypothesis, no metaphysics; all is clear and plain. I will go still further; this conception never leads to an actual contradiction. I may even say, it can lead to no contradiction. But, ladies and gentlemen, this view has never contributed to any advance in physics. If physics is to advance, in a certain sense its problem must be stated in quite the inverse way, on account of the fact that this conception is inadequate and at bottom possesses only a formal meaning.

The proof of the correctness of this assertion is to be found directly from a consideration of the process of development which theoretical physics has actually undergone, and which one certainly cannot fail to designate as essential. Let us compare the system of physics of today with the earlier and more primitive system which I have depicted above. At the first glance we encounter the most striking difference of all, that in the present system, as well in the division of the various physical domains as in all physical definitions, the historical element plays a much smaller rôle than in the earlier system. While originally, as I have shown above, the fundamental ideas of physics were taken from the specific sense perceptions of man, the latter are today in large measure excluded from physical acoustics, optics, and the theory of heat. The physical definitions of tone, color, and of temperature are today in no wise derived from perception through the corresponding senses; but tone and color are defined through a vibration number or wave length, and the temperature through the volume change of a thermometric substance, or through a temperature scale based on the second law of thermodynamics; but heat sensation is in no wise mentioned in connection with the temperature. With the idea of force it has not been otherwise. Without doubt, the word force originally meant bodily force, corresponding to the circumstance that the oldest tools, the ax, hammer, and mallet, were swung by man's hands, and that the first machines, the lever, roller, and screw, were operated by men or animals. This shows that the idea of force was originally derived from the sense of force, or muscular sense, and was, therefore, a specific sense perception. Consequently, I regard it today as quite essential in a lecture on mechanics to refer, at any rate in the introduction, to the original meaning of the force idea. But in the modern exact definition of force the specific notion of sense perception is eliminated, as in the case of color sense, and we may say, quite in general, that in modern theoretical physics the specific sense perceptions play a much smaller role in all physical definitions than formerly. In fact, the crowding into the background of the specific sense elements goes so far that the branches of physics which were originally completely and uniquely characterized by an arrangement in accordance with definite sense perceptions have fallen apart, in consequence of the loosening of the bonds between different and widely separated branches, on account of the general advance towards simplification and coordination. The best example of this is furnished by the theory of heat. Earlier, heat formed a separate and unified domain of physics, characterized through the perceptions of heat sensation. Today one finds in well nigh all physics textbooks dealing with heat a whole domain, that of radiant heat, separated and treated under optics. The significance of heat perception no longer suffices to bring together the heterogeneous parts.

In short, we may say that the characteristic feature of the entire previous development of theoretical physics is a definite elimination from all physical ideas of the anthropomorphic elements, particularly those of specific sense perceptions. On the other hand, as we have seen above, if one reflects that the perceptions form the point of departure in all physical research, and that it is impossible to contemplate their absolute exclusion, because we cannot close the source of all our knowledge, then this conscious departure from the original conceptions must always appear astonishing or even paradoxical. There is scarcely a fact in the history of physics which today stands out so clearly as this. Now, what are the great advantages to be gained through such a real obliteration of personality? What is the result for the sake of whose achievement are sacrificed the directness and succinctness such as only the special sense perceptions vouchsafe to physical ideas?

The result is nothing more than the attainment of unity and compactness in our system of theoretical physics, and, in fact, the unity of the system, not only in relation to all of its details, but also in relation to physicists of all places, all times, all peoples, all cultures. Certainly, the system of theoretical physics should be adequate, not only for the inhabitants of this earth, but also for the inhabitants of other heavenly bodies. Whether the inhabitants of Mars, in case such actually exist, have eyes and ears like our own, we do not know,—it is quite improbable; but that they, in so far as they possess the necessary intelligence, recognize the law of gravitation and the principle of energy, most physicists would hold as self evident: and anyone to whom this is not evident had better not appeal to the physicists, for it will always remain for him an unsolvable riddle that the same physics is made in the United States as in Germany.

To sum up, we may say that the characteristic feature of the actual development of the system of theoretical physics is an ever extending emancipation from the anthropomorphic elements, which has for. its object the most complete separation possible of the system of physics and the individual personality of the physicist. One may call this the objectiveness of the system of physics. In order to exclude the possibility of any misunderstanding, I wish to emphasize particularly that we have here to do, not with an, absolute separation of physics from the physicist—for a physics without the physicist is unthinkable,—but with the elimination of the individuality of the particular physicist and therefore with the production of a common system of physics for all physicists.

Now, how does this principle agree with the positivist conceptions mentioned above? Separation of the system of physics from the individual personality of the physicist? Opposed to this principle, in accordance with those conceptions, each particular physicist must have his special system of physics, in case that complete elimination of all metaphysical elements is effected; for physics occupies itself only with the facts discovered through perceptions, and only the individual perceptions are directly involved. That other living beings have sensations is, strictly speaking, but a very probable, though arbitrary, conclusion from analogy. The system of physics is therefore primarily an individual matter and, if two physicists accept the same system, it is a very happy circumstance in connection with their personal relationship, but it is not essentially necessary. One can regard this view-point however he will; in physics it is certainly quite fruitless, and this is all that I care to maintain here. Certainly, I might add, each great physical idea means a further advance toward the emancipation from anthropomorphic ideas. This was true in the passage from the Ptolemaic to the Copernican cosmical system, just as it is true at the present time for the apparently impending passage from the so-called classical mechanics of mass points to the general dynamics originating in the principle of relativity. In accordance with this, man and the earth upon which he dwells are removed from the centre of the world. It may be predicted that in this century the idea of time will be divested of the absolute character with which men have been accustomed to endow it (cf. the final lecture). Certainly, the sacrifices demanded by every such revolution in the intuitive point of view are enormous; consequently, the resistance against such a change is very great. But the development of science is not to be permanently halted thereby; on the contrary, its strongest impetus is experienced through precisely those forces which attain success in the struggle against the old points of view, and to this extent such a struggle is. constantly necessary and useful.

Now, how far have we advanced today toward the unification of our system of physics? The numerous independent domains of the earlier physics now appear reduced to two; mechanics and electrodynamics, or, as one may say: the physics of material bodies and the physics of the ether. The former comprehends acoustics, phenomena in material bodies, and chemical phenomena; the latter, magnetism, optics, and radiant heat. But is this division a fundamental one? Will it prove final? This is a question of great consequence for the future development of physics. For myself, I believe it must be answered in the negative, and upon the following grounds: mechanics and electrodynamics cannot be permanently sharply differentiated from each other. Does the process of light emission, for example, belong to mechanics or to electrodynamics? To which domain shall be assigned the laws of motion of electrons? At first glance, one may perhaps say: to electrodynamics, since with the electrons ponderable matter does not play any role. But let one direct his attention to the motion of free electrons in metals. There he will find, in the study of the classical researches of H. A. Lorentz, for example, that the laws obeyed by the electrons belong rather to the kinetic theory of gases than to electrodynamics. In general, it appears to me that the original differences between processes in the ether and processes in material bodies are to be considered as disappearing. Electrodynamics and mechanics are not so remarkably far apart, as is considered to be the case by many people, who already speak of a conflict between the mechanical and the electrodynamic views of the world. Mechanics requires for its foundation essentially nothing more than the ideas of space, of time, and of that which is moving, whether one considers this as a substance or a state. The same ideas are also involved in electrodynamics. A sufficiently generalized conception of mechanics can therefore also well include electrodynamics, and, in fact, there are many indications pointing toward the ultimate amalgamation of these two subjects, the domains of which already overlap in some measure.


Excerpted from Eight Lectures on Theoretical Physics by Max Planck, A. P. Wills. Copyright © 1998 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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