As I have outlined in parts 1 and 2 of this series (see here and here), in the 1890s, mainly through the work of the Physikalisch-Technische Reichsanstalt (PTR) in Germany, the exact shape of the blackbody spectrum began to be well determined. By mid-1900, with the last remaining observations in the infrared being completed, its shape from the UV through the visible and into the infrared was well determined for blackbodies with a wide range of temperatures.
I also described in part 2 that in 1896 Wilhelm Wien came up with a law, based on a thermodynamical argument, which almost explained the blackbody spectrum. The form of his equation (which we now know as Wien’s distribution law) is
Notice I said almost. Below I show two plots which I have done showing the Wien distribution law curve and the actual blackbody curve for a blackbody at a temperature of . As you can see, they are not an exact match, the Wien distribution law fails on the long-wavelength side of the peak of the blackbody curve.
Planck’s “act of desperation”
By October 1900 Max Planck had heard of the latest experimental results from the PTR which showed, beyond any doubt, that Wien’s distribution law did not fit the blackbody spectrum at longer wavelengths. Planck, along with Wien, was hoping that the results from earlier in the year were in error, but when new measurements by a different team at the PTR showed that Wien’s distribution law failed to match the observed curve in the infrared, Planck decided he would try and find a curve that would fit the data, irrespective of what physical explanation may lie behind the mathematics of the curve. In essence, he was prepared to try anything to get a fit.
Planck would later say of this work
Briefly summarised, what I did can be described as simply an act of desperation
What was this “act of desperation”, and why did Planck resort to it? Planck was 42 when he unwittingly started what would become the quantum revolution, and his act of desperation to fit the blackbody curve came after all other options seemed to be exhausted. Before I show the equation that he found to be a perfect fit to the data, let me say a little bit about Planck’s background.
Who was Max Planck?
Max Karl Ernst Ludwig Planck was born in Kiel in 1858. At the time, Kiel was part of Danish Holstein. He was born into a religious family, both his paternal great-grandfather and grandfather had been distiguished theologians, and his father became professor of constitutional law at Munich University. So he came from a long line of men who venerated the laws of God and Man, and Planck himself very much followed in this tradition.
He attended the most renowned secondary school in Munich, the Maximilian Gymnasium, always finishing near the top of his class (but not quite top). He excelled through hard work and self discipline, although he may not have had quite the inherent natural ability of the few who finished above him. At 16 it was not the famous taverns of Munich which attracted him, but rather the opera houses and concert halls; he was always a serious person, even in his youth.
In 1874, aged 16, he enrolled at Munich University and decided to study physics. He spent three years studying at Munich, where he was told by one of his professors ‘it is hardly worth entering physics anymore’; at the time it was felt by many that there was nothing major left to discover in the subject.
In 1877 Planck moved from Munich to the top university in the German-speaking world – Berlin. The university enticed Germany’s best-known physicist, Herman von Helmholtz, from his position at Heidelberg to lead the creation of what would become the best physics department in the world. As part of creating this new utopia, Helmholtz demanded the building of a magnificient physics institute, and when Planck arrived in 1877 it was still being built. Gustav Kirchhoff, the first person to systematically study the nature of blackbody radiation in the 1850s, was also enticed from Heidelberg and made professor of theoretical physics.
Planck found both Helmholtz and Kirchhoff to be uninspring lecturers, and was on the verge of losing interest in physics when he came across the work of Rudolf Clausius, a professor of physics at Bonn University. Clausius’ main research was in thermodynamics, and it is he who first formulated the concept of entropy, the idea that things naturally go from order to disorder and which, possibly more than any other idea in physics, gives an arrow to the direction of time.
Planck spent only one year in Berlin, before he returned to Munich to work on his doctoral thesis, choosing to explore the concept of irreversibility, which was at the heart of Claussius’ idea of entropy. Planck found very little interest in his chosen topic from his professors in Berlin, and not even Claussius answered his letters. Planck would later say ‘The effect of my dissertation on the physicists of those days was nil.’
Undeterred, as he began his academic career, thermodynamics and, in particular, the second law (the law of entropy) became the focus of his research. In 1880 Planck became Privatdozent, an unpaid lecturer, at Munich University. He spent five years as a Privatdozent, and it looked like he was never going to get a paid academic position. But in 1885 Gottingen University announced that the subject of its prestigoius essay competition was ‘The Nature of Energy’, right up Planck’s alley. As he was working on his essay for this competition, he was offered an Extraordinary (assistant) professorship at the University of Kiel.
Gottingen took two years to come to a decision about their 1885 essay competition, even though they had only received three entries. They decided that no-one should receive first prize, but Planck was awarded second prize. It later transpired that he was denied first prize because he had supported Helmholtz in a scientific dispute with a member of the Gottingen faculty. This brought him to the attention of Helmholtz, and in November 1888 Planck was asked by Helmholtz to succeed Kirchhoff as professor of theoretical physics in Berlin (he was chosen after Ludwig Boltzmann turned the position down).
And so Planck returned to Berlin in the spring of 1889, eleven years after he had spent a year there, but this time not as a graduate student but as an Extraordinary Professor. In 1892 Planck was promoted to Ordinary (full) Professor. In 1894 both Helmholtz and August Kundt, the head of the department, died within months of each other; leaving Planck at just 36 as the most senior physicist in Germany’s foremost physics department.
As part of his new position as the most senior physicist in the Berlin department, he took over the duties of being adviser for the foremost physics journal of the day – Annalen der Physik (the journal in which Einstein would publish in 1905). It was in this role of adviser that he became aware of the work being done at PTR on determining the true spectrum of a blackbody.
Planck regarded the search for a theoretical explanation of the blackbody spectrum as nothing less than the search for the absolute, and as he later stated
Since I had always regarded the search for the absolute as the loftiest goal of all scientific activity, I eagerly set to work
When Wien published his distribution law in 1896, Planck tried to put the law on a solid theoretical foundation by deriving it from first principles. By 1899 he thought he had succeeded, basing his argument on the second law of thermodynamics.
Planck finds a curve which fits
But, all of this fell apart when it was shown conclusively on the 2nd of February 1900, by Lummer and Pringsheim of the PTR, that Wien’s distribribution law was wrong. Wien’s law failed at high temperatures and long wavelengths (the infrared); a replacement which would fit the experimental curve needed to be found. So, on Sunday the 7th of October, Planck set about trying to find a formula which would reproduce the observed blackbody curve.
He was not quite shooting in the dark, he had three pieces of information to help him. Firstly, Wien’s law worked for the intensity of radiation at short wavelengths. Secondly, it was in the infrared that Wien’s law broke down, at these longer wavelengths it was found that the intensity was directly propotional to the temperature. Thirdly, Wien’s displacement law, which gave the relationship between the wavelength of the peak of the curve and the blackbody’s temperature worked for all observed blackbodies.
After working all night of the 7th of October 1900, Planck found an equation which fitted the observed data. He presented this work to the German Physical Society a few weeks later on Friday the 19th of October, and this was the first time others saw the equation which has now become known as Planck’s law.
The equation he found for the energy in the wavelength interval had the form
(compare this to the Wien distribution law above).
After presenting his equation he sat down; he had no explanation for why this equation worked, no physical understanding of what was going on. That understanding would dawn on him over the next few weeks, as he worked tirelessly to explain the equation on a physical basis. It took him six weeks, and in the process he had to abandon some of the ideas in physics which he held most dear. He found that he had to abandon accepted ideas in both thermodynamics and electromagnetism, two of the cornerstones of 19th Century physics. Next week, in the fourth and final part of this blog-series, I will explain what physical theory Planck used to explain his equation; the theory which would usher in the quantum age.