For most people, the greatest universal geniuses are Newton, Einstein, and, more recently, Stephen Hawking. All of them, physicists. Two British and the other German. Well, there is a fourth physicist coming from Germany, who is not only a great scientist but also a person who lived four different styles of government in his country and always used the phrase:
Persevere and continue working.
Maximillian Karl Ernst Ludwig Planck was born in Kiel on April 23 of 1858; for that time, Germany was the Kingdom of Prussia. His father was a Professor of Constitutional Law in that city, which was part of the Empire. At the age of ten, Planck started to sign as Max. He studied at the University of Munich, where he received his PhD in 1879. After that, he taught Theoretical Physics in the same place until 1885, then returning to Kiel the next four years, to finally being Associate Professor at Berlin University. The geniality of Planck was not only in mathematics, and he was gifted in music too, playing the piano, organ, cello and singing opera as an amateur tenor.
In 1887, Max married Marie Merck. They had four children. When living in Berlin, they lived the best years until 1909, when his wife died from tuberculosis. Planck married again two years later with Marga von Hoesslin, who gave him his fifth child by the end of 1911. In Berlin, he made a circle of friends and colleagues, among them Albert Einstein. They frequently met to chat and play music.
Then came the Great War (1914-1918), which he backed up at the beginning signing the Manifesto of the 93 German intellectuals – his sign was number 63. The two sons of Max fought for Germany. However, in the first year, Erwin, the youngest, was taken prisoner by the French until 1917, while his oldest son, Karl, was killed in action at Verdun in 1916. Back in Germany, his younger daughter Grete died in 1917, giving her first child. So, Max loss two children during the First World War, plus the defeat of his country. He overcame this still living in Berlin, keeping working and teaching. Nevertheless, in the final year of the war, he was notified for the Nobel Prize for his work on the quantum theory.
In the year, 1919 Germany became a Republic, so hopes in a new beginning started. However, the nation was broken and in turmoil. During those months, the German economy showed the highest inflation in the world; everybody was poor, including university professors. In addition, his second daughter died this year under the same circumstances as her sister Grete. The next year, Max and his friend, the chemist Fritz Haber, established the Emergency Organization of German Science (EOGS). This EOGS provided financial support for keep doing research and even art; most of the resources came from abroad.
Another apparent contradiction of Planck’s political ideas was his disagreement with the universal suffrage that the new German democratic republic set for the common people. A decade later, those democratic elections resulted in the ascent of Hitler’s National Socialist Party. Of course, this was due to the promises of the Nazis and the desolation caused by the broken nation of the 1920s.
When Hitler won the 1933 elections, economic recovery boosted. Nevertheless, minorities were pursued, especially the Jews, as everybody knows. Max still believed in Germany and tried to convince several colleagues to trust in the country, although he helped his nephew to migrate to England. Meanwhile, other German professors tried to publish a new letter against the Nazi treatment regarding Jews. However, Max refused to sign this proclamation. Instead, he intended unsuccessfully to talk directly with Hitler about softening such policies.
The next years saw the craziest science policy of any state of history. Johannes Stark, a Nobel Prize Physics awarded in 1919 for the Doppler Effect, begun to call for an Aryan Physics and reject the teaching of Einstein’s theories in the German universities. Each letter and communications from Stark have the ending Heil Hitler. Dr Johannes even went further more attacking Planck, saying he was 1/16 Jewish.
By 1938 at his 80s, Max had to suffer the Nazification of the Prussian Academy of Science. He resigned from the presidency. Hiking was the balsam for the craziness of living in the Third Reich and the suffering of World War II. In 1942 he was able to climb 3.000 meters in the Alps at 84 years old. He wrote those days, "I want to live long enough to see the beginning of a new rise."
Two years later, his home in Berlin was bombed by the air allied raids. All his house, including his library with his precious books and papers, were consumed by the destruction of the Royal Air Force planes. This same year of 1944, his surviving World War I son was between the July plotters lead by Coronel von Stauffenberg against Hitler. Erwin Planck was judged and sentenced to death in October. Max moved all his influence to avoid the fate of his son, arguing he was not part of this plot, but Erwin was hung in January 1945. This loss of his fourth son was shared by the final days of the conflict, avoiding combats between the rest of the German army and the overwhelming allies, even hiding in the woods where the Americans found him.
Besides being a scientist, a teacher, a musician and an exerciser, Planck was a faithful member of the German Lutheran Church. Max sometimes mixed his science lectures with his religious thoughts. He always criticized atheism but recognized the importance of being a man of science, however, toward the Christian God.
He died in October 1947 in the house of a relative in the city of Gottingen, where he lived in a new and promising Germany together with his second wife and his last son. The Kaiser Wilhelm Society of Science was renamed in his honor next year. Nowadays, this society widens on several Max Planck Institutes for different disciplines of Science and Arts across Europe and North America, giving job for more than 17.000 employees, including 20 Nobel laureates since 1954 and more recently in 2020 for Chemistry and Physics.