Institutions and Quantum Physics

History and Foundations of Quantum Physics: Institutions and Quantum Physics

Arne Schirrmacher, Dieter Hoffmann, Jürgen Renn, Horst Kant,

Other involved Scholars: 

Michael Eckert
Bretislav Friedrich
Thomas Steinhauser


Alexander McLean Nicolson in The Western Electric research department (of AT&T) c.1920. Nicolson observes crystal motion on the box in the table with a Fabre Perot interferometer. The white disc just over Nicolson's hands is the paper cone of a piezoelectric crystal driven load-speaker of his design. From AT&T archive.

Further studies were dedicated to the reorganization of physical research as a reaction to the emergence of quantum problems in the early twentieth century. Of central interest was the extent to which such a reorganization took place as the result of an explicit program to transform the mechanical worldview. The research focused on the effect of contemporary scientists' recognition of quantum problems and how this related to the shifting of their research foci, the reallocation of their resources, and the reorganization of research structures and policies. Several studies were conducted on specific institutions such as the University of Göttingen (Arne Schirrmacher), the Sommerfeld school in Munich (Michael Eckert), and the Berlin physics institutes (Dieter Hoffmann). The results will be presented in the above-mentioned volume on the role of scientific institutions in the development of quantum theory.

In preparation for the 100th anniversary of the KWG/MPG, its history is being studied with the aim of a general overview (Jürgen Renn and Horst Kant). In cooperation with the Fritz Haber Institute (one of the two first Kaiser Wilhelm Institutes to be founded in 1911), a research endeavor on the history of this institute has been started and a colloquium series established with invited speakers addressing various aspects from its history (Dieter Hoffmann, Bretislav Friedrich, Jeremiah James, Thomas Steinhauser). A similar endeavor is a cooperation with the Humboldt University Berlin for the occasion of its 200th anniversary in 2010, studying the history of physics there (Dieter Hoffmann).

In reaction to an international public discussion, research was conducted on Peter Debye and his role as a prominent physicist in Nazi Germany. One study concentrated on Peter Debye as director of the Kaiser Wilhelm-Institute for physics in Berlin during the Third Reich (Horst Kant). Another study aimed for a more differentiated picture of Debye’s role by comparing his situation with that of other foreign researchers in Nazi Germany (Dieter Hoffmann). A conference was held in Göttingen in 2008, “’Fremde’ Wissenschaftler unter Hitler. Die Debye-Affäre im Kontext,” and a proceedings volume is forthcoming.

  • Hoffmann, Dieter; Walker, Mark (Editors). Physiker zwischen Autonomie und Anpassung : die Deutsche Physikalische Gesellschaft im Dritten Reich. Weinheim: Wiley-VCH, 2007.
  • Hoffmann, Dieter. "Peter Debye (1884-1966) : ein typischer Wissenschaftler in untypischer Zeit." Gewina 29 (2006).
  • Kant, Horst. "Von der Lichttherapie zum Zyklotron : das Institut für Physik im Heidelberger Kaiser-Wilhelm-Institut für medizinische Forschung bis 1945." Dahlemer Archivgespräche 13/2007 (2008).