Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Max von Laue

Max von Laue was born on October 9, 1879 in Pfaffendorf (now part of Koblenz), Germany.  Von Laue's father was an official in the German military and his family moved often.  His bookish nature was recognized by his family and his grandfather gave him science books.  A demonstration of the electrical deposition of metallic copper from a solution of copper sulfate fascinated young von Laue and paved the way for a career in physics.  He attended gymnasium school in Posen, Berlin, and Strasbourg.  After a year of military service he attended the University of Strasbourg, the University of Gottingen, and the University of Munich, studying mathematics, chemistry and physics.  He earned his doctorate under Max Planck at the University of Berlin, graduating in 1903.

After finishing his doctorate he spent two years at the University of Gottingen and then went back to work for Max Planck as an assistant at the Institute for Theoretical Physics in Berlin.  There von Laue met and became friends with Albert Einstein and von Laue contributed to the development and acceptance of Einstein's theory of relativity.  In 1909 he went to the University of Munich where he lectured on thermodynamics, optics, and relativity.  In 1912 he was appointed professor of physics at the University of Zurich.  In 1913 his father was raised to the ranks of hereditary nobility and the "von" was added to his name.  From 1914 to 1919 he was professor of physics at the University of Frankfurt and in 1916 he worked at the University of Wurzburg on vacuum tubes for use in military wireless communications.  In 1919 he went till the University of Berlin, where he remained until 1943, when he became an emeritus, with his consent, one year before the mandatory retirement age.

Von Laue is most famous for the discovery of the diffraction of  x-rays by crystals. The discovery originated from a discussion of the behavior of light moving through a regular crystalline medium.  This caused von Laue to wonder what affect crystals would have on the much shorter wavelength x-rays.  After the diffraction of x-rays by crystals was demonstrated von Laue worked the results out mathematically and published his results in 1912.  This discovery paved the way for x-ray crystalography, the study of molecular structure of crystals using x-rays.  For his discovery von Laue was awarded the Nobel Prize in physics in 1914.  Other honors won by von Laue include the Max Planck Medal in 1932 and being made and officer in the French Legion of Honor in 1957.

Von Laue opposed the rising National Socialism movement in Germany and worked to help Jewish scientists emigrate from Germany.  When Germany invaded Denmark in 1940 von Laue's golden Nobel Prize was dissolved in aqua regia by Hungarian chemist Georg de Hevesy, who was working at the Niels Bohr Institute at the University of Copenhagen where the prize was being kept, in order to prevent it falling into Nazi hands.  Had the prize been discovered von Laue would have faced prosecution for exporting gold out of Germany.  After the war de Hevesey found the solution, where he left it, of on the shelf of his laboratory.  He precipitated the gold and returned it to the Nobel Society which recast the prize.  After World War II von Laue was was seized by Operation Alsos, an Anglo-American operation to grab German nuclear scientists and materials, to prevent them from falling into the hands of the Soviets, and he was interred in Huntington, England at Farm Hill, a bugged house, with nine other German scientists.  He returned to Germany in early 1946 and was the only German scientist invited to attend a conference on crystalography in London, where he was allowed to wander at will only four months after being released from internment.  After the war von Laue worked to reestablish German science and he served as the director of the Max Planck Institute for Physical and Electrochemistry from 1951 to 1959.

On April 8, 1960, while driving to the laboratory, von Laue was involved in a automobile accident with a motorcyclist, who had just received his licence.  Although he showed initial signs of recovery, he died on April 20th.


Max von Laue Nobel Biography

Max von Laue Wikipedia Entry

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