A brief history of theoretical physics in Göttingen

Woldemar Voigt
Physics in Göttingen began more or less with the university's foundation in the middle of the 18th century, and received some acclaim through the names of professors like Abraham Gotthelf Kästner, Tobias Mayer, Johann Ch. P. Erxleben and, particularly, Georg Christoph Lichtenberg. The student, collaborator and, later, colleague of Gauss, Wilhelm Weber, not only distinguished himself as a physicist, but also as a citizen fighting for his constitutional rights. Already at his time, i.e. since about 1849, the two positions for full professor in physics in Göttingen (Weber, Listing) corresponded approximately to a subdivision of the field into experimental and mathematical (theoretical) physics. The department "mathematical physics" of the university's Physics Institute was directed by well known physicists such as Woldemar Voigt (1850 - 1919, from 1883 in Göttingen), Peter Debye (1884 - 1966, in Göttingen 1914 - 1920) and Max Born (1882 - 1970, in Göttingen 1921 - 1933). Under his directorship, in 1922, his department in the Physics Institute was renamed "Institute for Theoretical Physics".

Max Born (ca. 1925)
In the 20th century, theoretical physics in Göttingen reached its summit with Max Born and his coworkers Heisenberg and Jordan by their decisive contributions to the development and completion of quantum theory (1925-1927): Born coined the name "quantum mechanics (1924). Since the introduction of the quantum of energy by Planck, and Einstein's idea of the quantum nature of light, the older mechanics of the atom had explained atomic spectra with the help of Bohr's intuitive model.

Werner Heisenberg (ca. 1926)

It was Werner Heisenberg who extracted a mathematical formalism from the observed energy spectrum of simple atoms allowing the calculation of measurable quantities like frequency, intensity, and polarization of the radiation without recourse to a specific model. Born saw the underlying mathematical structure (matrices, operators); his young coworkers Heisenberg and Jordan together with him cast it into (quantum-) matrix mechanics. In 1926 Schrödinger suggested (quantum-) wave mechanics, which was intended to describe matter waves in the sense of De Broglie.

However, Born showed that Schrödinger's wave function is connected with a probabilistic interpretation providing the probability density for the position of a particle. Born's probability interpretation and Heisenberg's uncertainty relation have changed our understanding of nature in a revolutionary way.

Both Werner Heisenberg and Max Born received the Nobel price (1932, 1954).

Wellenmechanische Bilder der Wasserstoffatoms in vier verschiedenen Anregungszuständen:
Die Helligkeit ist ein Maß für die Warscheinlichkeitsdichte, ein Elektron an diesem Ort anzutreffen.

By reading the names of members and guests of the Institute for Theoretical Physics in the 20ies and 30ies like Pauli, Hückel, Nordheim, Fermi, London, Hund, Heitler, Fock, Wigner, Herzberg, Mrs. Göppert (-Meyer), Ehrenfest, Oppenheimer, Delbrück, Weisskopf, Bloch and Teller (among others) we understand why these years are called the golden years of the Göttingen Institute. Of remarkable importance for physics at the time was the interaction of theoreticians with experimental physicists in Göttingen like Robert Pohl and James Franck, their renowned colleague in fluid mechanics Ludwig Prandtl as well as with mathematicians like Hilbert, Klein, Runge and Weyl.

Maria Göppert-Mayer
Max Reich, Max Born,
James Frank, Robert Pohl
With the seizure of power by the National Socialists this golden age came to an abrupt end. Richard Becker (in Göttingen 1936 - 1955) whose PhD student Krömer in 2000 was awarded a Nobel prize, and Friedrich Hund (leading the institute since 1957) successfully tried to re-establish the scientific standing of the Institute for Theoretical Physics. In the meantime, it had become clear that fundamental research of the 20ies and 30ies had been misused for life-threatening applications in the form of nuclear weapons. Hence, in 1957, prominent German physicists like Otto Hahn, Max von Laue and Carl-Friedrich von Weizäcker, among them the "old" Göttingen professors Max Born and Werner Heisenberg, formulated and signed a protest against nuclear arming of the German Armed Forces and world-wide nuclear armaments, the so-called "Göttinger Erklärung".

As a consequence of political discussions about the dramatic lack of educational facilities at the university level, in the 60ies German universities could expand considerably. For Göttingen, according to Hund's motto "small but excellent" this brought only a modest increase in academic positions from one full professor (Hund) and one associate professor (H. Steinwedel) to three full professorships and a number of assistants to them. They were filled by Max Kohler, a student of von Laue, working both in transport theory and alternative theories of gravitation, and by the subsequent receivers of the highest honour of the German Physical Society, the Max-Planck-Medal, Gerhard Lüders and Hans-Jürgen Borchers. Besides the physics of condensed matter and, for some time, nuclear physics, now quantum field theory emerged as a main working subject in the Institute. Highlights of work in this field were the TCP-theorem by Pauli and Lüders and the so-called Borcher's classes of axiomatic quantum field theory.


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Last modified: Fri Nov 8 11:54:38 CET 2002