11/16/10 - berlin

In today's excerpt - until 1871, the land that is now Germany had been a loose affiliation of small, sovereign states that had emerged from the Holy Roman Empire, and only became a single, unified country after the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. In the nationalistic fervor that followed, it became the second-leading industrial power in the world, and sought to build up its capital, Berlin, to world-class status. Young Max Planck entered Berlin in 1874 to pursue the re-emerging discipline of physics, and soon became one of history's scientific giants, founding quantum theory and paving the way for Bohr and Einstein:

"In October 1874, aged sixteen, Max Planck enrolled at Munich University and opted to study physics because of a burgeoning desire to understand the workings of nature. In contrast to the near-militaristic regime of the Gymnasiums (high schools), German universities allowed their students almost total freedom. With hardly any academic supervision and no fixed requirements, it was a system that enabled students to move from one university to another, taking courses as they pleased. Sooner or later those wishing to pursue an academic career took the courses by the pre-eminent professors at the most prestigious universities. After three years at Munich, where he was told 'it is hardly worth entering physics anymore' because there was nothing important left to discover, Planck moved to the leading university in the German-speaking world, Berlin.

"With the creation of a unified Germany in the wake of the Prussian-led victory over France in the war of 1870-71, Berlin became the capital of a mighty new European nation. Situated at the confluence of the Havel and the Spree rivers, French war reparations allowed its rapid redevelopment as it sought to make itself the equal of London and Paris. A population of 865,000 in 1871 swelled to nearly 2 million by 1900, making Berlin the third-largest city in Europe. Among the new arrivals were Jews fleeing persecution in Eastern Europe, especially the pogroms in Tsarist Russia. Inevitably the cost of housing and living soared, leaving many homeless and destitute. Manufacturers of cardboard boxes advertised 'good and cheap boxes for habitation' as shanty towns sprung up in parts of the city.

"Despite the bleak reality that many found on arriving in Berlin, Germany was entering a period of unprecedented industrial growth, technological progress, and economic prosperity. Driven largely by the abolition of internal tariffs after unification and French war compensation, by the outbreak of the First World War Germany's industrial output and economic power would be second only to the United States. By then it was producing over two-thirds of continental Europe's steel, half its coal, and was generating more electricity than Britain, France and Italy combined. Even the recession and anxiety that affected Europe after the stock market crash of 1873 only slowed the pace of German development for a few years.

"With unification came the desire to ensure that Berlin, the epitome of the new Reich, had a university second to none. Germany's most renowned physicist, Herman von Helmholtz, was enticed from Heidelberg. A trained surgeon, Helmholtz was also a celebrated physiologist who had made fundamental contributions to understanding the workings of the human eye after his invention of the ophthalmoscope. The 50-year-old polymath knew his worth. Apart from a salary several times the norm, Helmholtz demanded a magnificent new physics institute. It was still being built in 1877 when Planck arrived in Berlin and began attending lectures in the university's main building, a former palace on Unter den Linden opposite the Opera House."


Manjit Kumar


Quantum: Einstein, Bohr, and the Great Debate about the Nature of Reality


W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.


Copyright 2008 by Manjit Kumar


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