Max Planck and the quanta of energy

Max Planck was awarded the 1918 Nobel Prize for Physics:-

... in recognition of the services he rendered to the advancement of Physics by his discovery of energy quanta.

Planck gave his Nobel Lecture in Stockholm on 2 June 1920. He began his lecture by speaking about how the ideas of a quanta of energy came about:-

When I look back to the time, already twenty years ago, when the concept and magnitude of the physical quantum of action began, for the first time, to unfold from the mass of experimental facts, and again, to the long and ever tortuous path which led, finally, to its disclosure, the whole development seems to me to provide a fresh illustration of the long-since proved saying of Goethe's that man errs as long as he strives. And the whole strenuous intellectual work of an industrious research worker would appear, after all, in vain and hopeless, if he were not occasionally through some striking facts to find that he had, at the end of all his criss-cross journeys, at last accomplished at least one step which was conclusively nearer the truth. An indispensable hypothesis, even though still far from being a guarantee of success, is however the pursuit of a specific aim, whose lighted beacon, even by initial failures, is not betrayed.

For many years, such an aim for me was to find the solution to the problem of the distribution of energy in the normal spectrum of radiating heat. Since Gustav Kirchhoff has shown that the state of the heat radiation which takes place in a cavity bounded by any emitting and absorbing substances of uniform temperature is entirely independent upon the nature of the substances, a universal function was demonstrated which was dependent only upon temperature and wavelength, but in no way upon the properties of any substance. And the discovery of this remarkable function promised deeper insight into the connection between energy and temperature which is, in fact, the major problem in thermodynamics and thus in the whole of molecular physics. To attain this there was no other way but to seek out from all the different substances existing in Nature one of known emissive and absorptive power, and to calculate the properties of the heat radiation in stationary energy exchange with it. According to Kirchhoff's Law, this would have to prove independent of the nature of the body.

Heinrich Hertz's linear oscillator, whose laws of emission, for a given frequency, Hertz had just previously completely developed, seemed to me to be a particularly suitable device for this purpose. If a number of such Hertzian oscillators are set up within a cavity surrounded by a sphere of reflecting walls, then by analogy with audio oscillators and resonators, energy will be exchanged between them by the output and absorption of electromagnetic waves, and finally stationary radiation corresponding to Kirchhoff's Law, the so-called black-body radiation, should be set up within the cavity. I was filled at that time with what would be thought today naively charming and agreeable expectations, that the laws of classical electrodynamics would, if approached in a sufficiently general manner with the avoidance of special hypotheses, be sufficient to enable us to grasp the most significant part of the process to be expected, and thus to achieve the desired aim. I, therefore, developed first the laws of emission and absorption of a linear resonator on the most general basis, in fact I proceeded on such a detour which could well have been avoided had I made use of the existing electron theory of H A Lorentz, already basically complete. But since I did not quite trust the electron hypothesis, I preferred to observe that energy which flowed in and out through an enclosing spherical surface around the resonator at a suitable distance from it. By this method, only processes in a pure vacuum came into account, but a knowledge of these was sufficient to draw the necessary conclusions however, about the energy changes in the resonator.

The fruit of this long series of investigations, of which some, by comparison with existing observations, mainly the vapour measurements by Vilhelm Bjerknes, were susceptible to checking, and were thereby confirmed, was the establishment of the general connection between the energy of a resonator of specific natural period of vibration and the energy radiation of the corresponding spectral region in the surrounding field under conditions of stationary energy exchange. The noteworthy result was found that this connection was in no way dependent upon the nature of the resonator, particularly its attenuation constants - a circumstance which I welcomed happily since the whole problem thus became simpler, for instead of the energy of radiation, the energy of the resonator could be taken and, thereby, a complex system, composed of many degrees of freedom, could be replaced by a simple system of one degree of freedom.

Nevertheless, the result meant no more than a preparatory step towards the initial onslaught on the particular problem which now towered with all its fearsome height even steeper before me. The first attempt upon it went wrong, for my original secret hope that the radiation emitted from the resonator can be in some characteristic way or other distinguished from the absorbed radiation and thereby allow a differential equation to be set up, from the integration of which one could gain some special condition for the properties of stationary radiation, proved false. The resonator reacted only to those rays which it also emitted, and was not in the slightest bit sensitive to the adjacent spectral regions.

Furthermore, my hypothesis that the resonator could exercise a unilateral, i.e. irreversible, effect upon the energy in the surrounding radiation field, was strongly contested by Ludwig Boltzmann, who, with his riper experience in these problems, proved that according to the laws of classical dynamics each of the processes observed by me can proceed in exactly the opposite direction, in such a way, that a spherical wave emitted from the resonator, returns and contracts in steadily diminishing concentric spherical surfaces inwards to the resonator, and is again absorbed by it, thereby allowing the formerly absorbed energy to be re-transmitted into space in the direction from which it came. And when I excluded this kind of singular process, such as an inwardly directed wave, by means of the introduction of a limiting definition, the hypothesis of natural radiation, all these analyses still showed ever more clearly that an important connecting element or term, essential for the complete grasp of the core of the problem, must be missing.

So there was nothing left for me but to tackle the problem from the opposite side, that of thermodynamics, in which field I felt, moreover, more confident. In fact my earlier studies of the Second Law of Heat Theory stood me in good stead, so that from the start I tried to get a connection, not between the temperature but rather the entropy of the resonator and its energy, and in fact, not its entropy exactly but the second derivative with respect to the energy since this has a direct physical meaning for the irreversibility of the energy exchange between resonator and radiation. Since I was, however, at that time still too far oriented towards the phenomenological aspect to come to closer quarters with the connection between entropy and probability, I saw myself, at first, relying solely upon the existing results of experience. In the foreground of interest at that time, in 1899, was the energy distribution law established by W Wien shortly before, whose experimental proof was taken up, on the one hand, by F Paschen at the Technische Hochschule in Hannover, and, on the other hand, by O Lummer and E Pringsheim at the State Institution in Charlottenburg. This law brought out the dependence of the radiation intensity on the temperature, representing it by an exponential function. If one calculates the connection between the entropy and the energy of a resonator, determined by the above law, the remarkable result is obtained that the reciprocal value of the above-mentioned differential coefficient, which I will call R, is proportional to the energy. This extremely simple relationship can be considered as the completely adequate expression of Wien's energy distribution law; for with the dependence upon the energy, the dependence upon the wavelength is always directly given through the general, well-established displacement law by Wien.

Since the whole problem concerned a universal law of Nature, and since at that time, as still today, I held the unshakeable opinion that the simpler the presentation of a particular law of Nature, the more general it is - though at the same time, which formula to take as the simpler, is a problem which cannot always be confidently and finally decided - I believed for a long time that the law that the quantity R is proportional to the energy, should be looked upon as the basis for the whole energy distribution law. This concept could not be maintained for long in the face of fresh measurements. Whilst for small values of the energy and for short waves, Wien's law was satisfactorily confirmed, noteworthy deviations for larger wavelengths were found, first by O Lummer and E Pringsheim, and finally by H Rubens and F Kurlbaum, whose measurements on the infrared residual rays of fluorite and rock salt revealed a totally different, though still extremely simple relationship, characterized by the fact that the quantity R is not proportional to the energy, but to the square of the energy, and in fact this holds with increasing accuracy for greater energies and wavelengths.

So, through direct experiment, two simple limits were determined for the function R: for small energies, proportionality with the energy; for greater energies, proportionality with the square of the energy. There was no better alternative but to make, for the general case, the quantity R equal to the sum of two terms, one of the first power, and one of the second power of the energy, so that for small energies the first is predominant, whilst for the greater energies the second is dominant. Thus the new radiation formula was found, which, in the face of its experimental proof, has stood firm to a reasonable extent until now. Even today, admittedly, we cannot talk of final exact confirmation. In fact, a fresh attempt at proof is urgently required.

However, even if the radiation formula should prove itself to be absolutely accurate, it would still only have, within the significance of a happily chosen interpolation formula, a strictly limited value. For this reason, I busied myself, from then on, that is, from the day of its establishment, with the task of elucidating a true physical character for the formula, and this problem led me automatically to a consideration of the connection between entropy and probability, that is, Boltzmann's trend of ideas; until after some weeks of the most strenuous work of my life, light came into the darkness, and a new undreamed-of perspective opened up before me.


The explanation of the second universal constant of the radiation law was not so easy. Because it represents the product of energy and time, I described it as the elementary quantum of action. Whilst it was completely indispensable for obtaining the correct expression for entropy - since only with its help could the magnitude of the "elementary regions" or "free rooms for action" of the probability, decisive for the assigned probability consideration, be determined - it proved elusive and resistant to all efforts to fit it into the framework of classical theory. As long as it was looked upon as infinitely small, that is, for large energies or long periods of time, everything went well; but in the general case, however, a gap yawned open in some place or other, which was the more striking, the weaker and faster the vibrations that were considered. The foundering of all efforts to bridge the chasm soon left little doubt. Either the quantum of action was a fictional quantity, then the whole deduction of the radiation law was in the main illusory and represented nothing more than an empty non-significant play on formulae, or the derivation of the radiation law was based on a sound physical conception. In this case the quantum of action must play a fundamental role in physics, and here was something entirely new, never before heard of, which seemed called upon to basically revise all our physical thinking, built as this was, since the establishment of the infinitesimal calculus by Leibniz and Newton, upon the acceptance of the continuity of all causative connections. Experiment has decided for the second alternative.

Last Updated March 2006