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A physicist who defied the Nazis

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The German physicist Max von Laue was born plain Max Laue on 9 October 1879 in Pfaffendorf, Germany. The “von” was added to the family name in 1913 when his father, Julius, was raised to hereditary nobility for his work as an official in German military administration.

Max developed an early passion for physics and studied at universities in Strasbourg, Munich and Göttingen before being awarded a doctorate in 1903 by the University of Berlin, where he had gone to work under the instruction of Max Planck, one of the greatest physicists of the 20th century. After a further two years in Göttingen, he returned to Berlin as Planck’s assistant. He was also an early champion of Einstein’s ideas on relativity, and began publishing papers on the theories in 1907.

His best known work was on x-ray crystallography, for which he was awarded the Nobel prize for physics in 1914 after demonstrating that x-rays were diffracted by the atomic structure of crystals in a manner similar to light through a diffraction grating.

His work had two major implications: first, it confirmed x-radiation as electromagnetic, making it possible to determine the wavelength of x-rays accurately; secondly, it gave scientists a new tool for investigating the atomic structure of matter.

In later years von Laue became an outspoken opponent of the policies of the National Socialist (Nazi) Party, particularly those affecting scientists. For some time a movement called the Deutsche Physik had sought to discredit Einstein’s theories on relativity, calling them “Jewish physics”. Although the movement was encouraged by the government, von Laue bravely spoke out against it. He also secretly helped Jewish colleagues to emigrate to escape persecution by the Nazi government.

Von Laue smuggled his Nobel prize to Copenhagen to escape the clutches of the Nazis. There is a story that, on the day the Nazis occupied Denmark, his medal was one of two that were dissolved in aqua regia, with the gold being recovered after the war and the medals recast. However, studies of the journals of the scientists involved suggest that the post-war medals were in fact direct replacements by the Nobel Society.

Von Laue died 50 years ago today (24 April 1960) from injuries sustained in a road accident two weeks earlier.

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