Laue, Max von

views updated May 14 2018

Laue, Max von

(b. Pfaffendorf, near Koblenz, Germany, 9 October 1879; d. Berlin, Germany, 24 April 1960),

theoretical physics.

After passing the final secondary-school examination in March 1898, Laue began studying physics at the University of Strasbourg, although he was still in military service. In the fall of 1899 he transferred to Göttingen. Under the influence of Woldemar Voigt he chose to specialize in theoretical physics. At the same time he came to prefer optical problems, a preference that was strengthened by the lectures of Otto Lummer which he heard during his three semesters at the University of Berlin. In July 1903, Laue received his doctorate under Max Planck for a dissertation on the theory of interference in plane parallel plates. He then returned for two years to Göttingen, where he passed the state examination to qualify for teaching in the Gymnasiums.

The course that Laue’s life was to take was decided in the autumn of 1905, when Planck offered him an assistantship. Laue became Planck’s leading and favorite pupil, and the two formed a lifelong friendship. Laue introduced Planck’s central concept, entropy, into optics and qualified as university lecturer in 1906 with a work on the entropy of interfering pencils of rays. In the winter semester of 1905-1906 Laue heard Planck’s lecture at the Physical Colloquium on the special theory of relativity, which Einstein had just stated. After initial reservations Laue became one of the first adherents of the new theory and, as early as July 1907, presented a proof for it that he drew, characteristically, from optics.

In 1851, after many experiments, Fizeau had discovered a formula for the velocity of light in flowing water that could not be understood in terms of classical physics. Assuming light to be a wave phenomenon in the ether, one could either suppose that the ether does not contribute to the motion of the flowing water, in which case the velocity of light should be u = c/n; or one could postulate that the ether is carried along through the motion of the water, in which case the equation ought to be u = c/n ± v. Yet, curiously, the experiments showed partial ether “drag” varying as a specific fraction of the velocity of water—v(1—1/n2)—the Fresnel drag coefficient.

Einstein’s special theory of relativity dispensed with the addition or subtraction of the velocities, hitherto assumed to be self-evident, and applied instead a special “addition theorem.” In 1907 Laue demonstrated that this theorem readily yields Fizeau’s formula with the previously enigmatic Fresnel drag coefficient: u = c/n ± v(1 – 1/n2). Laue thereby furnished Einstein’s theory with an important experimental proof, which, along with the Michelson-Morley experiment and arguments from group theory, contributed to early acceptance of the theory. Having thus proved himself an expert in relativity theory, in 1910 Laue wrote the first monograph on the subject. He expanded it in 1919 with a second volume on the general theory of relativity; the work went through several editions.

In 1909 Laue became a Privatdozent at the Institute for Theoretical Physics, directed by Arnold Sommerfeld, at the University of Munich. Here, in the spring of 1912, Laue had the crucial idea of sending X rays through crystals. At this time scientists were very far from having proved the supposition that the radiation that Roentgen had discovered in 1895 actually consisted of very short electromagnetic waves. Similarly, the physical composition of crystals was in dispute, although it was frequently stated that a regular structure of atoms was the characteristic property of crystals. Laue argued that if these suppositions are correct, then the behavior of X radiation upon penetrating a crystal should be approximately the same as that of light upon striking a diffraction grating; and interference phenomena had been studied by means of the latter arrangement since Fraunhofer. These ideas, which Laue expressed in a discussion with Peter Paul Ewald, were soon being talked about by the younger faculty members. Finally Walter Friedrich, an assistant of Sommerfeld’s, and Paul Knipping, a doctoral candidate, began experiments in this field on 21 April 1912. The irradiation of a copper sulfate crystal yielded regularly ordered dark points on a photographic plate placed behind the crystal, the first of what are today called Laue diagrams. On 4 May 1912 Laue, Friedrich, and Knipping announced their success in a letter to the Bavarian Academy of Sciences.

Laue wrote in his autobiography:

I was plunged into deep thought as I walked home along Leopoldstrasse just after Friedrich showed me this picture. Not far from my own apartment at Bismarckstrasse 22, just in front of the house at Siegfriedstasse 10, the idea for a mathematical explanation of the phenomenon came to me. Not long before I had written an article for the Enzyklopaedie der mathematischen Wissenschaften in which I had to re-formulate Schwerd’s theory of diffraction by an optical grating (1835), so that it would be valid, if iterated, also for a cross-grating. I needed only to write down the same condition a third time, corresponding to the triple periodicity of the space lattice, in order to explain the new discovery.… The decisive day, however, was the one a few weeks later when I could test the theory with the help of another, clearer photograph.

The awarding of the Nobel Prize in physics for 1914 to Laue indicated the significance of the discovery that Albert Einstein called one of the most beautiful in physics. Subsequently it was possible to investigate X radiation itself by means of wavelength determinations as well as to study the structure of the irradiated material. In the truest sense of the word scientists began to cast light on the structure of matter.

Laue was appointed associate professor at the University of Zurich in 1912 and full professor at Frankfurt in 1914. In the latter year Laue’s father, an official in the military court system, was elevated to the hereditary nobility. Thus within a few years the unknown Privatdozent Max Laue became the worldfamous Nobel Prize winner Professor Max von Laue.

During the war Laue worked with Willy Wien in Würzburg on developing electronic amplifying tubes for improving the army’s communication techniques. In 1919 he arranged an exchange of teaching posts with Max Born: Born left Berlin to go to Frankfurt and Laue went to the University of Berlin, which he considered his true intellectual home. Here he was again able to be near Planck, his honored teacher and friend.

The new field of X-ray structural analysis that Laue established developed into an important branch of physics and chemistry. The leading researchers in the field were William Henry Bragg and William Lawrence Bragg. Laue himself, a true pupil pf Planck’s, was interested only in the “great, general principles” and did not concern himself with the study of the structure of individual substances; instead he continued to work on the fundamental theory. Following the preliminary investigations of Charles Galton Darwin and Peter Paul Ewald, Laue expanded his original geometric theory of X-ray interference into the so-called dynamical theory. Whereas the geometric theory dealt with only the interaction between the atoms of the crystal and the incident electromagnetic waves, the dynamical theory took into account the forces between the atoms as well. To be sure, the correction amounted to only a few seconds of arc, but deviations had appeared early in the course of the very precise X-ray spectroscopic measurements.

In the following decades the theory was developed in various directions. When Laue later undertook to provide a comprehensive view of only the principles in Röntgenstrahl-Interferenzen (1941), his account ran to 350 pages. After the discovery of electron interference, Laue included this phenomenon in his theory. He did not, however, otherwise participate in the creation or development of quantum theory; and, like Planck, Einstein, de Broglie, and Schrödinger, he was skeptical of the “Copenhagen interpretation.”

In 1932 Laue received the German Physical Society’s Max Planck Medal. In his acceptance speech Laue presented an important result in the field of superconductivity: the interpretation of a seemingly paradoxical measurement made by W. J. de Haas. Subsequently Laue engaged in a fruitful joint study of this topic with Walther Meissner. Meissner conducted the relevant experiments at the Physikalisch-Technische Reichsanstalt, and Laue acted as theoretical adviser to that institution. Whereas Werner Heisenberg, Fritz London, and Heinz London worked on a quantum theory of superconductivity, Laue characteristically remained within the framework of the classical theory. He applied the purely phenomenological Maxwellian theory to the superconductor and later worked on the thermodynamics of superconductivity.

Laue held positions of exceptional trust at an early age. In 1921, proposed by Max Planck, he became a member of the Prussian Academy of Sciences. Following the establishment of the Emergency-Association of German Science (later the German Research Association), the German physicists elected Laue the representative for theoretical physics. He was chairman of the physics committee and also a member of the electrophysics committee until 1934. Through his solid judgment he directed the available financial resources to the truly important projects and thereby played a not inconsiderable role in the continuance of the “golden age of German physics” even during the economic depression of the Weimar Republic.

Laue’s scientific pride did not permit him passively to accept Einstein’s dismissal following the Nazi seizure of power. Only two colleagues in the Prussian Academy joined in his protest. As the chairman of the German Physical Society, Laue took issue with the slandering of the theory of relativity as a “world wide Jewish trick” and gave a highly regarded address at the opening of the physics congress in Würzburg on 18 September 1933. He likened Galileo, the champion of the Copernican world view, to Einstein, the founder of relativity theory, and openly expressed his hope and belief that, as the truth had once before won out against the Church’s prohibition, this time it would win out against the National Socialist proscription: “No matter how great the repression, the representative of science can stand erect in the triumphant certainty that is expressed in the simple phrase: And yet it moves,”

Although his defense of Einstein had been in vain, Laue did have one success at the end of 1933—in the Prussian Academy. Johannes Stark, Hitler’s famous follower, who had become a rabid opponent of modern physical theories, was supposed to be admitted into the Academy at the request of the new regime; and a group of academicians was prepared—reluctantly—to consent to the election. Yet in the session of 11 December 1933 the objections to this choice were set forth so emphatically by Laue, Otto Hahn, and Wilhelm Schlenk that the sponsors withdrew the proposal and Stark was not admitted. On 23 March 1934, Einstein wrote to Laue: “Dear old comrade. How each piece of news from you and about you gladdens me. In fact I have always felt, and known, that you are not only a thinker, but a fine person too.”

When Friedrich Schmidt-Ott, the elected president of the German Research Association, was dismissed by the Nazis and replaced by Johannes Stark, Laue was once again the spokesman for the physicists. He wrote to Schmidt-Ott on 27 June 1934: “I heard of your withdrawal from the presidency … with deep regret. The overwhelming majority of German physicists, especially the members of the physics committee, share this regret … Under the present circumstances, moreover, I fear that the change in the presidency is the prelude to difficult times for German science, and physics will no doubt have to suffer the first and hardest blow.”

In the Research Association, Laue’s judgment was no longer asked for; he also lost his position as adviser to the Physikalisch-Technische Reichsanstalt. He continued, however, as professor at the University of Berlin and as deputy director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physics. Following his early retirement from teaching in 1943, Laue moved to Württemberg-Hohenzollern; at this time the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute, busy with military research and now under the direction of Werner Heisenberg, was relocated in Hechingen. Although Laue did not participate in the uranium project for the production of atomic energy, he was interned after the war with the atomic physicists by the Allies.

From the beginning Laue stood at the forefront of the rebuilding of German science. In the fall of 1946, working in Göttingen, he created with former colleagues leagues the German Physical Society in the British Zone and in 1950 took part in refounding the League of German Physical Societies, today known as the German Physical Society. Laue played an important part in the reestablishment of the Physikalisch-Tech-nische Bundesanstalt in Brunswick (the successor to the Physikalisch-Technische Reichsanstalt in Berlin) and in the German Research Association, where he was reelected to the physics committee until 1955. At first Laue was active primarily in his former post of deputy director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physics at Göttingen. In April 1951, at the age of seventy-one, he took over the directorship of the former Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Chemistry and Electrochemistry in Berlin-Dahlem. Active up to the end, Laue died in his eighty-first year following an automobile accident. He was mourned by colleagues throughout the world.


1. Original Works. Laue’s writings were collected in Gesammelte Schriften und Vortrāge, 3 vols. (Brunswick, 1961), with his autobiography in vol. III. His works include Die Relativitätstheorie, 2 vols. (Brunswick, 1911-1919); Korpuskular- und Wellentheorie (Leipzig 1933); Röntgenstrahl-Interferenzen (Leipzig, 1941); Materiewellen und ihre Interferenzen (Leipzig, 1941); Geschichte der Physik (Bonn, 1946); and Theorie der Supraleitung (Berlin, 1947).

II. Secondary Literature. See the following, listed chronologically: R. Brill, O. Hahn, et al., “Feierstunde zu Ehren von Max von Laue an seinem 80. Geburstag,” in Mitteilungen aus der Max Planck-Gesellschaft,6 (1959), 323-366; Peter Paul Ewald, “Max von Laue,” in Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society,6 (1960), 135-156, with bibliography; James Franck, “Max von Laue (1879-1960),” in Yearbook. American Philosophical Society (1960), 155-159; Walther Meissner, “Max von Laue als Wissenschaftler und Mensch,” in Sitzungsberichte der Bayerischen Akademie der Wissenschaften zu München (1960), 101-121; Max Päsler, “Leben und wissenschaftliches Werk Laues,” in Physikalische Blätter,16 (1960), 552-567; Peter Paul Ewald, Fifty Years of X-Ray Diffraction (Utrecht, 1962), passim; Friedrich Herneck, “Max von Laue,” in Bahnbrecher des Atomzeitalters (Berlin, 1965), pp. 273-326; Paul Forman, “The Discovery of the Diffraction of X-Rays by Crystals,” in Archive for History of Exact Sciences, 6 (1969), 38-71; and Armin Hermann, “Forschungsförderung der Deutschen Forschungsgemeinschaft und die Physik der letzten 50 Jahre,” in Mitteilungen der Deutschen Forschungsgemeinschaft,4 (1970), 21-34, also in Physik in unserer Zeit,2 (1971), 17-23.

Copies of unpublished letters, almost all of them written to Laue, are available at the Deutsches Museum, Munich (Handschriftenabteilung) and at Stuttgart University, in the Department of the History of Science and Technology.

Armin Hermann

Max von Laue

views updated May 18 2018

Max von Laue

The German physicist Max von Laue (1879-1960) was the first to use x-rays to study the arrangement of atoms in crystals. His work in x-ray crystallography earned him the Nobel Prize in physics in 1914.

Max Theodor Felix von Laue was born on October 9, 1879, in Pfaffendorf, Germany. His father was a civilian official in German military administration who in 1913 was raised to the hereditary nobility (hence the von in the family name). In the early 1890s the young von Laue gained a passionate interest in physics that lasted until his death some 60 years later.

Von Laue received his scientific training at the universities of Strasbourg, Munich, and Göttingen. He was awarded a doctorate in mathematics and physics by the University of Berlin (1903) where he came under the influence of Max Planck, one of the greatest physicists of the 20th century. In the fall of 1905 Planck offered von Laue a post at the Institute for Theoretical Physics. The four years (1905-1909) during which von Laue worked closely with Planck marked the beginning of his career as a creative scientist. An early and lifelong champion of the physical ideas of Albert Einstein, von Laue began publishing papers on the theory of relativity in 1907.

In 1909 von Laue moved to the University of Munich where he was associated with yet another distinguished physicist, Arnold Sommerfield. Continuing his interest in relativity at Munich, von Laue prepared a 200-page monograph on the subject, the first such book to be published on Einstein's revolutionary theories. At Sommerfield's suggestion von Laue began writing a treatise on wave optics. This undertaking led him to the famous work on x-ray analysis of the atomic structure of crystalline material.

The precise nature of x-radiation, discovered by W. C. Roentgen in 1895, had not yet been determined when von Laue initiated his study of x-rays. If, as some argued, x-rays were not made up of particles but were a form of electromagnetic radiation similar to ordinary light, then it should be possible to repeat well-known optical experiments using x-rays instead of beams of ordinary light. For example, when ordinary light passes through a diffraction grating (a piece of glass covered with a series of fine, parallel, equidistant lines engraved upon its surface) a characteristic diffraction or interference pattern results. Because the wave-length of x-rays was assumed to be much shorter than that of light, an x-ray diffraction experiment required a grating with lines more finely ruled than was physically possible.

Von Laue's contribution was the insight that when using x-radiation the glass diffraction grating can be replaced by crystalline material. The regular spacing of the atoms in the crystal will affect x-rays penetrating it in the same way that the closely engraved lines of the grating affect light passing through. Von Laue, always the theoretician, did not actually make the necessary experiments, but those who did confirmed his predictions—x-rays diffracted by crystals yielded the expected interference patterns.

Von Laue's discovery, which Einstein hailed as one of the most beautiful in the history of physics, won him the Nobel Prize in 1914. This pioneering work in x-ray crystallography opened the way for two quite different developments in physics, both of them of immense importance. First, it confirmed the electromagnetic nature of x-radiation and made it possible to determine the wave length of x-rays with great accuracy. Second, it gave physicists and chemists a new tool for investigating the atomic structure of matter. In the 1950s it was x-ray diffraction studies that enabled scientists to reveal the structure of the nucleic acids (DNA and RNA) and to establish the new discipline of molecular biology.

During World War I von Laue helped to improve the electronic vacuum tubes used in the German army's communication system. After the war (1919) he accepted a post at the University of Berlin. Subsequent research led von Laue to refine his study of x-ray interference and to explore the phenomenon of super-conductivity whereby certain metals lose virtually all of their resistance to the flow of an electric current at temperatures approaching absolute zero (-273.16 C).

Between the two world wars, von Laue became a leading statesman of German theoretical physics. He held high positions in academic scientific institutions and used his influence there to defend freedom of thought and expression in science. He battled particularly against Nazi attempts to suppress relativity theory as the degenerate product of an inferior Jewish scientific outlook.

After World War II von Laue labored to revive German physics and bring it back into the world scientific community. In 1951 he was made director of the prestigious Fritz Haber Institute of Physical Chemistry, a post he held until his retirement in 1958. Two years later he lost his life in an automobile accident.

Further Reading

Max von Laue's life and scientific achievements are covered in P.P. Ewald, "Max von Laue," in Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society, vol. 6 (1960) and in Armin Hermann, "Laue, Max von," in the Dictionary of Scientific Biography, vol. VIII, edited by C.C. Gillispie (1970). For a history of physics in Germany during von Laue's lifetime see Armin Hermann, The New Physics (Munich, 1979). □

Max von Laue

views updated May 29 2018

Max von Laue


German Physicist

Max von Laue is best known for his work with the diffraction of x rays by crystalline solids, including the determination of the molecular structures of crystalline materials. He received the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1914 in recognition of his work in this field.

A precocious youngster, Laue became interested in science at the age of 12. He studied at the Universities of Strassburg, Göttingen, Munich, and Berlin, where he worked with Max Planck (1859-1947) and received his doctorate. Subsequently, Laue worked at Göttingen, Berlin, and Munich. In 1909 he wrote the first published monograph on the special theory of relativity.

X rays were discovered in 1895 by W. C. Roentgen (1845-1923). Some scientists regarded them as particles or pulses, while others considered them to be electromagnetic radiation like light. In 1912 Laue proposed a way to resolve the disagreement. When a beam of light, whose wavelength is similar to the spacing of the parallel slits in a grating, passes through these slits, the beam is diffracted, and the light is observed to travel in various directions, not just in the direction of the impinging radiation. This phenomenon is the result of constructive interference of the beams of light exiting the various slits. It was accepted that the atoms making up a crystal are arranged in an orderly geometric fashion, with each atom located at exactly the same distance from its neighbors. This spacing is similar in magnitude to the supposed wavelength of x rays. Laue proposed that if a beam of x rays is indeed made up of radiation waves, in analogy with light shining through a grating, a beam of x rays passing through a crystal should be diffracted.

In 1912 Walter Friedrich (1883-1968) and Paul Knipping, under Laue's direction, confirmed this postulate, demonstrating that a beam of x rays, passing through a crystal, is diffracted in very precise directions. This proved that x rays are a form of electromagnetic radiation. Laue further established that the pattern of the diffracted beams is a property of the individual crystal and is related to the spacing of the atoms in the crystal. Thus, the pattern of the diffracted x rays could be used to determine the crystal's internal structure.

Laue was awarded the 1914 Nobel Prize for Physics in recognition of these discoveries. His basic approach has been developed over the years to provide methods for the determination of hundreds of molecular structures, ranging from simple diatomic molecules to proteins. These methods based on Laue's discovery have provided molecular information that could not have been obtained otherwise and have dramatically facilitated the development of molecular biology and chemistry. Laue is regarded as the founder of crystallography and as one of the founders of solid-state physics.

Laue also did research in quantum theory, relativity theory, radioactivity, and superconductivity. In 1919 he became the director of the Institute for Theoretical Physics at the University of Berlin. He remained with the Institute throughout the Second World War. Although he remained in Germany during the war, he did not support the Nazi regime and assisted others to escape. After the war, he was instrumental in rebuilding the German scientific enterprise in cooperation with the occupation forces. In 1951, at the age of 71, he accepted the position of director of the Max Planck Institute for Research in Physical Chemistry.

Laue enjoyed adventure throughout his life. He was an avid motorcycle rider and mountain climber. He died in an automobile accident at the age of 81. His autobiography, published posthumously in 1961, contains numerous personal anecdotes, including his experiences during the war years, and adds a humanizing touch to the German scientific community during the first half of the twentieth century.


Laue, Max Theodor Felix von

views updated Jun 27 2018

Laue, Max Theodor Felix von (1879–1960) German physicist. Using ions in a crystal as a grating, Laue produced X-ray interference patterns, thus showing that X-rays are waves, and providing a method of investigating crystal structure. For this discovery, he received the 1914 Nobel Prize in physics. See also X-ray crystallography