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Lorenz F. Beck and Marion Kazemi

Max Planck online


The papers of the physicist and founder of the quantum theory in 1900, Max Planck, have been destroyed by fire in World War II. In occasion of his 150th anniversary in 2008 the Archives of the Max Planck Society plan a project together with other archives and institutions with two aims: To preserve his written and audiovisuell documents which have come down as well as to bring them virtually together in a online data base. At first the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, the Archives of the Berlin Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and the Staatsbibliothek Preußischer Kulturbesitz (State Library of the Prussian Cultural Heritage) will participate. Later on further German and foreign archives should be involved. The essentials of the programme will be outlined.

The German physicist Max Planck (1858-1947) was one of the great physicists of the 20th century and founder of the quantum theory. His discovery of the Planck black-body radiation law and the realization that energy could be emitted only in quantized form resulted in the discovery of a new theoretical constant, Planck’s action quantum h. Its presentation to the German Physical Society on  December 14th in 1900 is regarded as the birth of quantum physics with which he revolutionized classical physics against his will. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1918. The full interpretation of the radical implications of Planck's work was first understood by Albert Einstein who advanced it in 1905.

Planck was full professor for theoretical physics at Berlin university and served more than 25 years as secretary of the physical and mathematical class of the Prussian Academy of Sciences. He was an active member of the German Physical Society and more than 50 years in the board of trustees of the "Annals of Physics", the leading magazine in physics at that time. Furthermore he held a variety of positions in different institutions, among them Chancellor of the most important German order Pour Le mérite for sciences and arts (since 1930) and member of the directorate of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physics which had been founded for Albert Einstein as director in 1917. Finally in 1930 the already seventy-year-old Planck became president of the Kaiser Wilhelm Society for the Advancement of the Sciences, the predecessor of the Max Planck Society, which he headed during the first difficult years under National Socialism and tried to protect it from state interventions as far as possible. After the end of the second World War he headed the Society once again for 9 months until Otto Hahn, the discoverer of the nuclear fission, returned from internment in England and became president. As the only German Planck was invited to London to take part in the Newton celebration in 1946. He died in October 1947.

Max Planck (1858–1947), about 1930

Planck’s correspondence and scientific papers were destroyed during World War II. His house was destroyed completely in the course of three bomb raids. His student and colleague Max von Laue could save at least a small part of his library before the second attack. After an adventurous journey it is today kept in the Archives of the Max Planck Society. Just after the first bomb raid Planck had left Berlin together with his wife and took his most important documents and letters with him. They were burnt at a bomb raid on Kassel where Planck was staying to give a lecture. There he himself was buried for some hours.

The MPS Archives have been trying to collect documents by and concerning Max Planck since 1976 to create at least a substitute for his lost archives. Our meanwhile quite extensive Planck collection with more than 2000 pieces includes letters of Planck to relatives, friends and colleagues, letters of him or concerning him in the original or as a copy, notebooks from his student days as well as genealogical material. This collection is completed by numerous documents in other holdings of our archives such as the records of the Kaiser Wilhelm and the Max Planck Society as well as the papers of other scientists, by photographs, films and sound records, medallions, newspaper clippings, six bronze busts, paintings and portrait drawings and finally by things like his mountaineer equipment – which is of great popularity for exhibitions.

As an aid for a full Planck biography, which is missing until day, the MPS Archives have published a Planck inventory on the occasion of the fiftieth day of death in 1997 (October 4th)[1]. Besides its own Planck sources it lists those of other German archives and libraries as well as – in choice – of European and U.S. American ones. Since the interest in Planck is still alive and has increased recently on the occasion of his today's  hundred and fiftieth birthday (April 23rd), the MPS Archives intend to put a comprehensive Planck inventory online in cooperation with several Institutions making use of the possibilities of the internet where single documents should also be available.

Until now, unfortunately, the project is not funded. I would nevertheless like to introduce the project to you briefly, not least in the intention of receiving some suggestions from you for the implementation, be it with respect to the software, the design or with regard to further cooperations.

The project has two aims: To preserve his written and audiovisual documents which are kept in several archives as well as to bring them together in one comprehensive virtual directory. The individual documents shall be described, furthermore the most important or those of particular interest shall be shown as images. Transcripts of handwritten letters or notes shall be enclosed for better legibility. In addition to the MPS Archives the neighbouring Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, the Archives of the Berlin Brandenburg Academy of Sciences (Berlin-Brandenburgische Akademie der Wissenschaften) and the Manuscript Department of the Berlin State Library Prussian Cultural Heritage (Staatsbibliothek Preußischer Kulturbesitz), shall be involved in the project. All are located in Berlin. After that the archives of those institutions, in which Planck played an important role, should be included too, namely the Archives of the Humboldt University of Berlin, the German Physical Society and the German Academy of Sciences Leopoldina, in addition the German Broadcasting Archives. Further German and also European and American archives should follow if possible.

An excellent example of an internet presentation about Max Planck has now been presented at the Archives of the Berlin Brandenburg Academy of Sciences ( It primarily introduced Planck’s work in the Academy, also including biographical and bibliographical details. After all, Planck was a member for more than 50 years and was secretary of the mathematical and scientific class there for twenty-six years. One can look at the documents to single events as a picture. For those who have difficulties reading the handwritten protocols and letters a transcription is added. One can see and listen to a – particularly impressive – 20-minute film in which the eighty-five-year-old Planck speaks about his life and his science and which served as a basis for his "scientific autobiography" published later. This presentation corresponds approximately to what we imagine for this project, only that serveral archives shall contribute to it from its sources to represent Plancks life and work in as many facets as possible.

The difficulty is that in our opinion this presentation shall be supported by a database which must have a hierarchical structure to enable one to look both for relevant criteria and for archival holdings. However, at the same time it must be online to offer optimal enquiry possibilities to the users of the many documents.

Internet projects exist for cultural sources like “European Cultural Heritage online (ECHO), Open Access Infrastructure for a Future web of Culture and Science” into which the Planck inventory could be integrated later. But till now none of the projects presented there is a database supported one. One can look at single documents which, however, cannot be broused using search functions. The Max Planck Institute for the History of Science already has realized several interesting internet projects and is involved also in ECHO. But they do not have a solution for our ideas there yet, either.

If somebody of you has been involved in a similar project or knows a suitable database software, we are grateful for every suggestion and every tip. If you have documents of Planck in your archives – I could imagine this for the Nobel Archives − and is interested in participating in our project, we would also be very happy.

[1]   Dirk Ullmann: Quelleninventar Max Planck. Berlin 1996, 176 S. (= Veröffentlichungen aus dem Archiv der Max-Planck-Gesellschaft, 8).