Skip to main content

Planck - Brandon R. Brown ***

Max Planck, the physicist who started the quantum revolution, is a fascinating character, poised as he was between nineteenth century science and the transformation wrought by relativity and quantum theory in the twentieth century. In this new biography of Planck, physicist Brandon Brown provides genuine insights into Planck, the man.

This isn't primarily the standard form of a scientific biography. The book does, of course, mention Planck's science, but it doesn't focus on giving us an in-depth understanding of entropy, blackbody radiation and the emergence of the quantum. What we have here is a study of Planck as a human being, family man and conflicted nationalist who found the Nazi Party, with whom he reluctantly collaborated in, for instance, the removal of Jewish scientists from German academia, uncomfortable and unsophisticated bedfellows.

What the book does well - better than any other book on Planck that I have read - is fill in the detail of his family life, both the positive, loving side and the disasters that saw Planck lose his first wife and all four of the children they had together, from eldest son dying in the First World War to his favourite Erwin, killed by the Nazis for possible involvement in a plot to assassinate Hitler. We see a loving family, at odds with Planck's old-fashioned stiffness in public affairs. And Brown does not hold back from some of the oddity of that family life - the way, for instance, his son-in-law married one of Planck's daughters, then married her twin when the first daughter died (only for the twin to die too). Or what might now raise an eyebrow or two when Planck married his wife's niece soon after his first wife died.

However there are some issues with the approach. The science isn't particularly well explained, not helped by a tendency to overuse florid similes. Planck's letter to Hitler, trying to prevent his son's execution, for instance, is described as being 'like a pick to the mountainside, his best shot to halt a steep slide.' Although the writing style is mostly light and approachable (sometime a little too colloquial, such as in the irritating habit of using 'passed' instead of 'died') the readability of the book is reduced by the jumpiness of the timeline. The first three chapters focus on 1944, 1905 and 1943 respectively. As Brown continues, each chapter then tends to start in 1944, gradually heading towards Erwin, the son's execution, but then in the body of the chapter jumps around all over the place chronologically.

I understand the urge to avoid writing a biography steadily along the timeline, as this can seem a little dull. But this attempt goes too far the other way with far too much flashing back, forwards and for all I know sideways. It's bad enough in any biography, but where there's science involved such a fluid chronology makes it harder to follow the development of the scientific content. The approach just didn't work for me.

Overall, certainly very interesting on Planck as a character. I think his role in Nazi physics is best captured by putting it alongside others as we see in Philip Ball's Serving the Reich, though Brown does an excellent job of bringing out the inner struggle between Planck's powerful love of the Fatherland and the difficulties he had with what was happening around him and to Jewish friends like Einstein. However, I can't rate the book any higher for the reasons mentioned above.
Hardback:  

Kindle:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Einstein's Greatest Mistake - David Bodanis ****

Books on Einstein and his work are not exactly thin on the ground. There's even been more than one book before with a title centring on Einstein's mistake or mistakes. So to make a new title worthwhile it has do something different - and David Bodanis certainly achieves this with Einstein's Greatest Mistake. If I'm honest, the book isn't the greatest on the science or the history - but what it does superbly is tell a story. The question we have to answer is why that justifies considering this to be a good book.
I would compare Einstein's Greatest Mistake with the movie Lincoln -  it is, in effect, a biopic in book form with all the glory and flaws that can bring. Compared with a good biography, a biopic will distort the truth and emphasise parts of the story that aren't significant because they make for a good screen scene. But I would much rather someone watched the movie than never found out anything about Lincoln - and similarly I'd much rather someon…

A Tale of Seven Scientists - Eric Scerri ***

Scientists sometimes tell us we're in a post-philosophy world. For example, Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow in The Grand Design bluntly say that that philosophy is 'dead' - no longer required, as science can do its job far better. However, other scientists recognise the benefits of philosophy, particularly when it is applied to their own discipline. One such is Eric Scerri, probably the world's greatest expert on the periodic table, who in this challenging book sets out to modify the philosophical models of scientific progress.

I ought to say straight away that A Tale of Seven Scientists sits somewhere on the cusp between popular science and a heavy duty academic title. For reasons that will become clear, I could only give it three stars if rating it as popular science, but it deserves more if we don't worry too much about it being widely accessible.

One minor problem with accessibility is that I've never read a book that took so long to get started. First t…

Four Way Interview - Tom Cabot

Tom Cabot is a London-based book editor and designer with a background in experimental psychology, natural science and graphic design. He founded the London-based packaging company, Ketchup, and has produced and illustrated many books for the British Film Institute, Penguin and the Royal Institute of British Architects. Tom has held a lifelong passion to explain science graphically and inclusively ... ever since being blown away by Ray and Charles Eames’ Powers of Ten at an early age. His first book is Eureka, an infographic guide to science.

Why infographics?
For me infographics provided a way to present heavy-lifting science in an alluring and playful, but ultimately illuminating, way. And I love visualising data and making it as attractive as the ideas are.  The novelty of the presentation hopefully gets the reader to look afresh. I love the idea of luring in readers who might normally be put off by drier, more monotone science – people who left science behind at 16. I wanted the boo…