Physics Search
HEIDELBERG PHYSICISTS
THEOPHILUS MADERUS PROFESSOR PHYSICES 1593 - 1604
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JOHANNES LEUNESCHLOS PHYSICES ET MATHESEOS PROFESSOR 1650 - 1700
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WILHELM BERNHARD NEBEL PHYSICES ET MATHESEOS PROFESSOR 1728 - 1748
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PROFESSOR PHYSICAL EXPERIMENTALIS ET MATHESIS 1752 - 1774
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PROFESSOR DER PHYSIK 1812 - 1816
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GEORG WILHELM MUNCKE PROFESSOR DER PHYSIK 1817 - 1846
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PROFESSOR DER PHYSIK 1846 - 1854
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PROFESSOR DER PHYSIK 1854 - 1875
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PROFESSOR DER PHYSIK 1875 - 1907
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PROFESSOR DER PHYSIK 1907 - 1931 NOBELPREIS 1905
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PROFESSOR DER PHYSIK 1932 - 1934 und 1945 - 1953 NOBELPREIS 1954
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PROFESSOR DER THEORETISCHEN PHYSIK 1949 - 1973 NOBELPREIS 1963
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PROFESSOR DER PHYSIK 1950 - 1974
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PROFESSOR DER PHYSIK 1952 - 1963
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The history of the development of the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Heidelberg

Whoever digs into the historical documents of the University of Heidelberg and searches for special occurrences in the history of physics at the University will quickly discover some.
Whoever digs into the historical documents of the University of Heidelberg and searches for special occurrences in the history of physics at the University will quickly discover some. As in the case of the ups and downs of a sine curve, one discovers a phase of provinciality followed by a phase in which excellent research and teaching with worldwide acknowledgment has occurred. The conditions for success were (and today still are) the basic elements of a scientific culture of knowledge that Heidelberg academics subscribe to and which is fondly termed the 'Heidelberg spirit': the pursuit of a consensus in decision making as well the conscious view over the boundaries of specific scientific domains of research into others. Top performance was achieved in times in which the University understood how to use and expand on the potential offered by the scientific landscape external to it. An intelligent, well informed and skilful politics on the part of the University in filling professorial positions led to the appointments of physicists and astronomers in Heidelberg, who had obtained an excellent education and experience in European scientific centres. Furthermore, it offered them a solid research environment, a collegial, if elite, working atmosphere and sufficient academic freedom to be able to develop as scientists. If one reads personal documents of great Heidelberg scientists, such as those of Gustav Kirchhoff, Hermann von Helmholtz, Robert Bunsen, Johannes Jensen or Otto Haxel, to mention but a few, one notices that all of them speak of a Heidelberg scientific community that is held closely together in particular by an enthusiasm to present their scientific work to colleagues in their own and in other fields and to solve problems in this way in fruitful interaction.
Did (and does) the key to success thus lie in a 'we' feeling? The history of physics in Heidelberg can be traced back to the 14th century. In those early days, physics formed a part of the teaching duties accorded to the Faculty of Arts, in which students prepared themselves for studies in theology, law or medicine. Physics as such was not at this stage considered to lead to an independent occupation. The content of the course work in physics then included such things as the writings of Aristoteles, which were adopted in the 13th century by Albertus Magnus in the context of the Christian world view. Aristotelian physics was considered to encompass the basic principles of earthly movement and was thus considered appropriate for a description of both qualitative and quantitative changes in state that occur in nature. The first lectures in physics in Heidelberg, in the Aristotelian sense, were held by Heimannus Wunnenberg, the second rector of the University, in 1387. In 1531, the members of the Faculty of Arts commenced discussions as to how to secure the continuity of teaching in physics, which culminated in the establishment of a separate chair of physics. This was further facilitated by a reorganisation of the University, which took place at that time, and in which Philipp Melanchthon played an important role. As a result of this, it was possible to appoint a physics professor 1556. Teaching in physics was however interrupted by the violence that broke out in general during the thirty year war. The University was re-established in 1662 and the chair in physics was then occupied by Johannes Leuneschloss. Leuneschloss was strongly influenced by the latest insights in architecture, that he had gained during his travels to Holland and England. He thus moved the focus of physics from the current Aristotelian, speculative orientation, which had been reintroduced by the Jesuits as the official viewpoint in the physics programme in 1697 to a firmer basis. Little by little, the Jesuits universities themselves established experimental physics in their institutions; in Heidelberg, this occurred during the reign of the prince-elect Karl Theodor. This was evidenced by the establishment of a chair for experimental and mathematical physics, which was occupied by the Jesuit Christian Mayer in 1752. Mayer held this position until 1774 and performed research in particular in the fields of astronomy and cartography. For his investigations of the movement of binary stars, he was elected into the scientific associations in London, Philadelphia, Bologna, Mannheim and Göttingen. The fact that he had a high reputation and was in addition the court astronomer of Karl Theodor was however not sufficient to prevent the Department of Philosophy of the University from treating experimental and mathematical physics as disjunct subjects, as was the case from 1784. Mathematical branches of physics, such as statics, optics and hydraulics were declared to be part of mathematics, while physics was reserved for 'descriptions of nature'. This however did not reduce the prestige accorded to physics by the public on the threshold of moving from the 18th to the 19th century. Following the Jesuit professors C. Mayer, J. Schwab and J. Schmitt, Karl Wilhelm Gottlob Kastner and Jakob Friedrich Fries were appointed, who in their lectures primarily imparted knowledge with chemical, mineralogical and meteorological content as well as on natural philosophy, thus following the trends that were current in universities during the age of enlightenment. Kastner and Fries both authored text books on physical science, in which the knowledge of their time is summarised. In 1817 the separation of the chair of chemistry from the chair of physics earmarked the start of a new orientation. The sheer volume of information that had been accumulated under the generic name 'physics - the science of all nature', could no longer be systematically filed under this one name. The methodological and contentual distribution of the natural sciences into its subsciences physics, chemistry, biology, mineralogy etc. was now reflected in the continued establishment of separate chairs as well as of teaching courses in all of these fields. Phillipp von Jolly then set new accents in Heidelberg. Jolly, the son of an industrialist, had spent time in the Berlin laboratory of Gustav Magnus while studying physics and thereafter in mechanical workshops as well as workshops for glass blowing. He was thus inspired by experiment and missed the fact that this was not available in Heidelberg. In 1846, he used the opportunity while negotiating the terms of his chair at the University to complain to the Baden Minister of Culture that both a laboratory as well as scientific instruments were lacking. Jolly then initiated the construction of a new building for science (the 'Friedrichsbau'). In addition, he introduced the concept of physics practicals which he financed partly through the local government, and partly from his private funds. In 1854, Jolly's successor was appointed. As it turned out, this person was exceptional: Gustav Robert Kirchhoff. Kirchhoff was a former student of Franz Neumann in Königsberg, and had an excellent schooling in mathematical physics. He however also had gained experience in experimental physics in Berlin under the auspices of Gustav Magnus. In constructing the solution to the problem of the electrical conductivity of a disc, he demonstrated his creativity as a physicist; the documentation of this contains in part the so-called 'Kirchhoff laws', which universally describe the physical laws governing the flow of electrical current in circuits.
Heidelberg offered Kirchhoff favourable working conditions - the administration in the local government was interested in the sciences; in addition he received the highest salary among the scientists of his time! - furthermore, he had loyal and inspiring scientific friends and a scientific constellation that was to aid and support him in a productive period lasting 20 years.
In Heidelberg, in 1859, Kirchhoff, together with Robert Bunsen, discovered spectra using gas burners and they developed the techniques of spectral analysis, which later proved to be the key for understanding the construction of atoms. Here Kirchhoff discovered that the emission and absorption observed was independent of the properties of the substance itself. Here again, he first defined the concept of a black body, and here he discovered that electrical waves travel in a wire with the speed of light, here he analysed the spectrum of the sun, ...
Kirchhoff's concept of lectures in physics furthermore set the form in which physics lectures at universities were given until the 20s in the 20th century. In addition, he opened up new avenues of discussion, being the first to start an interdisciplinary Heidelberg mathematical physical seminar in 1869. When Kirchhoff obtained the chair in Berlin in 1875, the words of the physicist Wilhelm Weber in Göttingen had rung true. In his letter of reference for Kirchhoff, which he had written at the time that Kirchhoff was to come to Heidelberg, Weber had euphorically prophesied that through his interdisciplinary activities, Kirchhoff would transform Heidelberg into a centre of science. Indeed, Kirchhoff and his friends had achieved this and more, having united both tasks of lecturer and researcher into one person, the professor, in the sense of the Humboldt ideal. The successor of Kirchhoff as Professor of Physics at Heidelberg was Georg Quincke. Quincke held this post for a total of 32 years. During this time, in 1890, a state decision was taken to split the Faculty of Mathematics and Natural Sciences from that of philosophy, a decision that had been long overhauled by the reality of the significance of mathematics and the sciences in the academic teaching programme.
Quincke, who is remembered today through the invention of the 'Quincke tube' gained his reputation as the discoverer of diaphragmatic currents, but also as a convincing lecturer in experimental physics. His lectures were heard among others, by Max Wolf and Phillip Lenard.
Heidelberg University has Max Wolf to thank for the construction of the State Observatory at the Königsstuhl. This was opened in 1898 and became the centre point of two institutes, the already existent astronomical institute and the astrophysical institute led by Max Wolf and which focussed on astrophotography. Philipp Lenard, who obtained his doctorate in physics in Heidelberg, took up an assistantship with Heinrich Hertz in Bonn and thereafter held a professorship in Kiel, obtaining the Nobel prize physics in 1905 for his work on cathode ray emission. He returned to Heidelberg in 1907, as the successor to Georg Quincke. It was through his high reputation as a physicist, that it came about that a new building for physics, the 'Institute of Physics' in Philosophenweg, was established in 1912. However, Lenard's influence on the Combined Faculties of Mathematics and the Natural Sciences was not particularly successful. He refuted major developments in theory, even those such as Einstein's theory of relativity, becoming more adamant with age. Unfortunately, his anti-Semitic leanings outweighed his scientific ethos. He not only refused to treat his Jewish colleagues with respect, he forbade their attendance of scientific events. As an emeritus, he was the definitive founder of the so-called 'German' or 'Aryan physics'. The successor of Philipp Lenards was the nuclear physicist Walther Bothe, a student of Max Planck, Ernest Rutherford and Hans Geiger. Bothe, who had an international world view, could not tolerate the confrontation with the 'German physics' fraction. In 1934, he turned away from the Institute of Physics and took over the directorship of the Department of Physics of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Medical Research, which in 1945 under his guidance, was to become the start of the post-war scientific new beginnings. It is the ideology-free policies of Walther Bothe in filling posts that Heidelberg has to thank in being able to regain world fame after this time. Bothe employed Wolfgang Gentner, who had worked with the Curies at the Sorbonne and had been a guest of Otto Hahn and Fritz Straßmann, who discovered nuclear fission. Thus he was able to introduce the latest results and techniques in nuclear physics, and from 1935 he worked in Heidelberg on the nuclear photo effect. Together with Bothe, Gentner built the first German cyclotron at then the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Heidelberg, which was completed in 1944. Bothe in addition filled an additional professorial post in Heidelberg with the person of Johannes Jensen, who also has left a lasting impression on Heidelberg physics, with the then founded Institute of Theoretical Physics and the development of the shell model of atomic nuclei for which he obtained the Nobel prize in 1963 - 9 years after Walther Bothe himself had obtained a Nobel prize for his coincidence measurements confirming the existence of cosmic radiation. It is the dedication of Walther Bothe to excellence that further led to the chairs for physics being filled by the atomic physicist Hans Kopfermann and the nuclear physicist Otto Haxel. As such, there were now possibilities for extremely successful collaborations. In addition, the way had been paved for a division of Heidelberg physics into its theoretical and experimental branches, which had their own independent institutions in which they could further develop. The Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Heidelberg is the constructional child of this diversification into thematic sections, and was called into being in 1970 in addition to the Departments of Mathematics, Chemistry, Pharmacy, Geosciences as well as Biology within the Combined Faculty of Mathematics and the Natural Sciences. Today the Department of Physics and Astronomy is housed in several buildings, the Institute of Physics, the Kirchhoff Institute of Physics, the Institute of Environmental Physics, the Institute of Theoretical Physics as well as the Center of Astronomy in Heidelberg. There are close connections to the neighbouring Max-Planck-Institutes and to the centres of medicinal and biological research (ZMBH; DKFZ; EMBL). Common projects in physics research as well as teaching bind the institutes closely to one another. This has been made visible in the Kirchhoff Institute of Physics, founded at the turn of the 21st century, in which the Institutes for Applied Physics and High Energy Physics were combined into one building. What is then the key to success? The interdisciplinary Ansatz? Looking back - probably not, if taken simply on its own. The will to find a consensus in favour of scientific endeavour is certainly inspirational in Heidelberg, as well as the will to suppress self interests and group interests in favour of the pursuit of science as a whole.
 
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