A Quantum Revolution
And the People Who Created It

A Dead End
As the nineteenth century drew to a close, many prominent physicists believed that most of the physical laws that describe our world and the universe in which it resides had already been discovered and the few “loose ends” yet to be answered would be discovered in the next decade or so.  This view described a dead end future for the field of physics and particularly for those who intended to make it their profession.

How wrong these thought leaders were since there was about to occur an explosive revolution of ideas and discoveries that would tear asunder many of the cherished underpinnings of “classical” physics that had been carefully constructed over the past 250 years back to the time of Isaac Newton and usher in the new field of quantum physics which offered many more questions than answers but opened up physics to an incredibly dynamic future.

A “Loose End” Solved
The Quantum Revolution started slowly.  One of those “loose ends” yet to be discovered had to do with “black body” radiation where the actual experimental measurements did not agree with those calculated by the equations of the then accepted wave theory of light.  On December 14,1900 before the German Physical Society a most improbable person to develop new and creative ideas presented a paper that answered the black body dilemma.  He was Max Planck , a 42-year-old theoretical physicist steeped in classical theory who progressed over the previous 25 years through the rigid structure of German academia to finally attain the most prestigious chair of physics in Germany at the University of Berlin. This is hardly the type of background that spawns mold-breaking creativity.  Planck’s theory treated radiation’s energy at different wavelengths as discrete amounts or “quanta” which was a direct contravention how the wave theory's equations treated it.   Much of the peer reaction to Planck’s presentation was that the theory was nothing more than a mathematical construct developed to produce the proper answer since it had no classical underpinnings.  Planck himself was unsure of his discovery and spent the next 15 years attempting to reconcile it with classical theory.

 And Another “Loose End” Solved
In 1905, Albert Einstein , age 26 then working as an obscure examiner in the Swiss patent office in Bern solved another one of the “loose ends” called the “photo- electric effect”.  When light (photons) was shown on certain metal surfaces, if properly connected an electrical current could be created.   Contrary to the classical wave theory of light, experimental results showed that the strength of the current was not changed by the light’s intensity but was by altering its frequency and that below a certain cutoff frequency, electrical current would not flow.  Based on Planck’s work, Einstein developed a theory whose equations provided the same results as the experiments.
Atomic Physics Changed Forever
In early 1913, a young Dane, age 28 named Niels Bohr working as a post-doc on atomic physics under Ernest Rutherford at the University of Manchester, after much study of spectroscopic data of elements used Planck’s previous work to develop a theory that described the discrete orbits of electrons around the nucleus of the hydrogen atom.  The proof of his theory was the ability to mathematically derive the Rydberg Constant, which up to this time had only been determined from experimental data.  This monumental work introduced quantum theory to atomic physics and finally gave credence to Planck’s work throughout the entire physics community.

The Young Turks
Bohr’s adaptation of quantum theory to the atom opened a virtual floodgate of creativity over the next 30 years, which eventually led to the development of the atomic bomb in 1945.  However, the period of 1920-1930 was one of the more interesting periods in the history of physics where a relatively small group of young, brilliant theoretical physicists emerged to create some of the most fundamental discoveries of quantum physics that became the foundation of most future work of the 20th century.

Who Were These Guys?
In order to understand and appreciate this exciting period, I have created biographical outlines of many of these individuals that provide an insight into their backgrounds, personal life, professional accomplishments and unique personalities

It is very interesting to compare the periods when these people worked in close collaboration with each other in exchanging ideas at such renowned places in Europe and under the mentorship as Cambridge with Rutherford, Gottingen with Born , Munich with Sommerfeld , Copenhagen with Bohr and at the Solvay Conferences held in Brussels, particularly those in 1927 and 1933 .  Furthermore, you will begin to understand the impact the turbulent political situation in Europe after World War I with its rise of Fascism had on the drain of European brainpower and the rise of the United States as the world center of  physics research.

To relive this unique periods of time in the history of the science of physics, move to the next page for the Table of Contents of these biographies by clicking on the forward arrow below.

If you have some constructive comments or suggestions after reading this material, I would enjoy hearing from you. You can reach me at the email link shown below.

David B. Bruns
December 2001

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