Peter Debye: Wikis


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Peter Debye

Born March 24, 1884(1884-03-24)
Maastricht, Netherlands
Died November 2, 1966 (aged 82)
Ithaca, New York, USA
Citizenship Netherlands / United States
Fields Physics, Chemistry
Institutions University of Zürich (1911-12)
University of Utrecht (1912-14)
University of Göttingen (1914-20)
ETH Zürich (1920-27)
University of Leipzig (1927-34)
University of Berlin
Cornell University (1940-50)
Alma mater RWTH Aachen
University of Munich
Doctoral advisor Arnold Sommerfeld
Doctoral students Lars Onsager
Paul Scherrer
Raymund Sänger
Franz Wever
George K. Fraenkel
Known for Debye model
Debye relaxation
Debye temperature
Notable awards Nobel Prize in Chemistry (1936)
Priestley Medal (1963)

Peter Joseph William Debye (March 24, 1884 – November 2, 1966) was a Dutch physicist and physical chemist, and Nobel laureate in Chemistry.



Early life

Born Petrus Josephus Wilhelmus Debije in Maastricht, Netherlands, Debye attended the Aachen University of Technology, Rhenish Prussia just 30 km away in 1901. He studied mathematics and classical physics, and, in 1905, received a degree in electrical engineering. In 1907, he published his first paper, a mathematically elegant solution of a problem involving eddy currents. At Aachen, he studied under the theoretical physicist Arnold Sommerfeld, who later claimed that his most important discovery was Peter Debye.

In 1906, Sommerfeld received an appointment at Munich, Bavaria, and took Debye with him as his assistant. Debye got his Ph.D. with a dissertation on radiation pressure in 1908. In 1910, he derived the Planck radiation formula using a method which Max Planck agreed was simpler than his own.

In 1911, when Albert Einstein took an appointment as a professor at Prague, Bohemia, Debye took his old professorship at the University of Zurich, Switzerland. This was followed by moves to Utrecht in 1912, Göttingen in 1913, ETH Zurich in 1920, to Leipzig in 1927, and to Berlin in 1934, where, succeeding Einstein, he became director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physics (now named the Max-Planck-Institut) whose facilities were only built during Debye's era. He was awarded the Lorentz Medal in 1935. From 1937 to 1939 he was the president of the Deutsche Physikalische Gesellschaft.

In 1913, Debye married Mathilde Alberer. They had a son, Peter P. Debye (born 1916), who became a physicist and collaborated with Debye in some of his researches, and a daughter, Mathilde Maria (born 1921).

Scientific contributions

Later work

From 1934 to 1939 Debye was director of the physics section of the prestigious Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Berlin. From 1936 onwards he was also professor of Theoretical Physics at the Frederick William University of Berlin. These positions were held during the years that Adolf Hitler ruled Nazi Germany and, from 1938 onward, also over Austria.

In 1939 Debye traveled to the United States of America to deliver the Baker Lectures at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. After leaving Germany in early 1940, Debye became a professor at Cornell, chaired the chemistry department for 10 years, and became a member of Alpha Chi Sigma. In 1946 he became an American citizen. Unlike the European phase of his life, where he moved from city to city every few years, in the United States Debye remained at Cornell for the remainder of his career. He retired in 1952, but continued research until his death.

Much of Debye's work at Cornell concerned the use of light-scattering techniques (derived from his X-ray scattering work of years earlier) to determine the size and molecular weight of polymer molecules. This started as a result of his research during World War II on synthetic rubber, but was extended to proteins and other macromolecules.

In April 1966, Debye suffered a heart attack, and in November of that year a second one proved fatal. He is buried in the Pleasant Grove Cemetery (Ithaca, New York, USA).[1][2]

War activities and controversies

2006 controversy

In January 2006, a book (in Dutch) appeared in The Netherlands, written by Sybe Rispens, entitled Einstein in the Netherlands.[3] One chapter of this book treats the relationship between Einstein and Debye. Rispens discovered documents that, as he believed, were new and proved that, during his directorship of the Kaiser Wilhelm Society, Debye was actively involved in cleansing German science institutions from Jewish and other "non-Aryan elements". Rispens records that on December 9, 1938, Debye wrote in his capacity as chairman of the Deutsche Physikalische Gesellschaft (DPG) to all the members of the DPG:

In light of the current situation, membership by German Jews as stipulated by the Nuremberg laws, of the Deutsche Physikalische Gesellschaft cannot be continued. According to the wishes of the board, I ask of all members to whom these definitions apply to report to me their resignation. Heil Hitler!

Many biographies[4][5][6] published before Rispens' work, state that Debye moved to the US because he refused to accept German citizenship forced on to him by the Nazis. He planned his departure from Germany during a visit with his mother in Maastricht in late 1939, boarded a ship in Genoa in January 1940 and arrived in New York in early February 1940. He immediately sought a permanent position in the US and accepted such an offer from Cornell in June 1940. That month, he crossed the US border into Canada and returned within days on an immigration visa. He was able to get his wife out of Germany and to the US by December 1940. Although his son already was in the US before he departed, Peter Debye's 19 year old daughter and sister-in-law did not leave. They lived in his official residence in Berlin and were supported by Debye's official Berlin wages (he carefully maintained an official leave-of-absence for this purpose).

Further, Rispens [3] alleges that Albert Einstein in the first half of 1940 actively tried to prevent Debye from being appointed in the United States at Cornell. Einstein allegedly wrote to his American colleagues: "I know from a reliable source that Peter Debye is still in close contact with the German (Nazi) leaders" and, according to Rispens, Einstein called upon his colleagues to do "what they consider their duty as American citizens". To support this, Rispens refers to a well-known letter from Debye to Einstein and Einstein's response to it. Van Ginkel[7] investigated 1940 FBI reports on this matter and traced the "reliable source" to a single letter directed to Einstein and written by someone whose name is lost. This person was not known personally to Einstein and, according to Einstein, probably did not know Debye personally either. Moreover, this accusative letter did not reach Einstein directly but was intercepted by British censors who showed it to Einstein. Einstein sent the British agent with the letter to Cornell, and the Cornell authorities told Debye about the affair. Thereupon Debye wrote his well-known 1940 letter to Einstein to which Einstein answered. The latter two letters can be found in the published Einstein correspondence.

Rispens alleges that Debye sent a telegram to Berlin on 23 June 1941 informing his previous employers that he was able and willing to resume his responsibilities at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institut, presumably in order to maintain his leave-of-absence and keep the Berlin house and wages available for his daughter. A copy of this telegram has not been recovered thus far. In summer 1941, Debye filed his intent to become a US citizen and quickly was recruited in the US to participate in the Allied War research.

It has been well documented in many biographies, and also in Rispens' book, that Debye and Dutch colleagues helped his Jewish colleague Lise Meitner in 1938-1939 (at great risk to himself and his family[8][9]) cross the Dutch-German border to escape Nazi prosecution and eventually obtain a position in Sweden.

Predating Rispens' work, and in contrast to it, an article by Rechenberg[10] appeared 18 years earlier concerning Debye's letter. The article describes Debye's missive in more detail and presents a very favorable picture of Debye in his efforts to resist the Nazi activists. Moreover, this article points out that Max von Laue, well known for his anti-Nazi views, gave his approval to the letter from the DPG chairman.

International response

Debye's son, Peter P. Debye, interviewed in 2006 at age 89[11] recollects that his father was completely apolitical and that in the privacy of their home politics were never discussed. According to his son, Debye just wanted to do his job at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute and that as long as the Nazis did not bother him he was able to do so. He recalls that his mother urged him (the son) to stay in the US in the event of war. Debye's son had come to the US on a planned 2-month vacation during the summer of 1939 and never returned to Germany because war did, indeed, break out.

Rispens' accusations were considered harmful enough by the Board of Directors of the University of Utrecht to announce on February 16, 2006 a name change for the Debye Institute. This was done after consultation with NIOD.[12]

In an opinion article published on the Debye Institute website, Dr. Gijs van Ginkel, until April 2007 Senior Managing Director of the VM Debye Instituut in Utrecht[13] deplored this decision. In his article he cites scholars who point out that the DPG was able to retain their threatened staff as long as could be expected under increasing pressure from the Nazis. He also puts forward the important argument that when Debye in 1950 received the Max Planck medal of the DPG, nobody objected, not even the known opponent of the national socialists Max von Laue, who would be in a position to object. Also Einstein, with his enormous prestige, was still alive, as were other Jewish scientists such as Lise Meitner and James Franck who both knew Debye intimately. None of them protested against Debye receiving the highest German scientific distinction. In fact, Albert Einstein, after many years of not participating in the voting for the Max Planck Medal nominees, joined the process again to vote for Debye.

Maastricht University also announced that it was reconsidering its position on the Peter Debye Prijs voor natuurwetenschappelijk onderzoek (Peter Debye Prize for scientific research) [14]

In a reply on the DPG website,[15] Dieter Hoffmann and Mark Walker also conclude that Debye was not a Nazi activist. They remark that Max von Laue also was required and obliged (as a civil servant) to sign letters with Heil Hitler. They also state that the DPG was one of the last scientific societies to purge the Jewish members and only very reluctantly. They quote the response of the Reich University Teachers League (a National Socialist organization) to the Debye letter:

Obviously the German Physical Society is still very backward and still clings tightly to their dear Jews. It is in fact remarkable that only "because of circumstances beyond our control" the membership of Jews can no longer be maintained

In May 2006,[16] the Dutch Nobel Prize winner Martinus Veltman who had written the foreword to the Rispen book, renounced the book's description of Peter Debye, withdrew his foreword, and asked the Board of Directors of Utrecht University to rescind their decision to rename the Debye Institute.

Various historical investigations, both in The Netherlands and in the US, have been carried out subsequent to the actions of the University of Maastricht. The earliest of these investigations, carried out by the Cornell University's department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology is now complete. The report[17] of the Cornell investigation, released on 31 May 2006, states that:

Based on the information to-date, we have not found evidence supporting the accusations that Debye was a Nazi sympathizer or collaborator or that he held anti-Semitic views. It is important that this be stated clearly since these are the most serious allegations.

It goes on to declare:

Thus, based on the information, evidence and historical record known to date, we believe that any action that dissociates Debye's name from the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology at Cornell is unwarranted.

In June 2006, it was reported[18][19] that the scientific director of the (formerly) Debye Institute had been reprimanded by the Board of Directors of the University of Utrecht for a new publication on Debye's war years on the grounds that it is was too personally biased with respect to the Institute's naming dispute. According to the board, the book should not have been published as a Debye Institute publication, but as a personal one. The book[7] was banned by the University of Utrecht and both Directors of the (former) Debye Institute were forbidden to have any further contact with the press.

In May 2007, the universities of Utrecht and Maastricht announced that a new committee headed by Jan Terlouw will advise them regarding the name-change. Also, in the beginning of 2007 an official report was announced, to be published by the NIOD and authorized by the Dutch Education Ministry (then scheduled for fall 2007).[20]

2007 NIOD report

On November 27, 2007 the Dutch NIOD published a report, authored by Martijn Eickhoff, entitled In the Name of Science? about the relationship between Debye and the Third Reich.[21] NRC Handelsblad headlined that Debye was loyal to the Nazis.[22] The Volkskrant published an open letter by Gijs van Ginkel and others directed to the Education Minister in which the report received significant criticism.[23]

The report describes Rispens' presentation of Debye, as an opportunist who had no objection to the Nazis, as a caricature. It concludes that Debye's actions in 1933-45 were based on the nineteenth-century positivist view of science which saw research in physics as generating blessings for humankind. The report states that, by his contemporaries, Debye was considered an opportunist by some and as a man of highest character by others. The report asserts that Debye was not coerced by the Nazis into writing the infamous DPG Heil Hitler letter and that he also did not follow the lead of other societies in doing so but, rather, other societies followed his lead.[24] The NIOD report also concludes that Debye felt obliged to send the letter and that it was, for him, simply a confirmation of an existing situation. The report argues that Debye, in the Third Reich, developed a survival method of ambiguity which allowed him to pursue his scientific career despite the political turmoil. Crucial to this survival method was the need to keep ready an escape hatch, for example in his secret dealings with the Nazis in 1941, if needed.

2008 Terlouw report

In January 2008 the Terlouw Commission advised the Boards of Utrecht and Maastricht Universities to continue to use Peter Debye’s name for the chemistry and physics institute in Utrecht, and to continue awarding the science prize in Maastricht.[25] The Commission concluded that Debye was not a party member, was not an anti-semite, did not further Nazi propaganda, did not cooperate with the Nazi war machine, was not a collaborator, and yet also was not a resistance hero. He was a rather pragmatic, flexible, and brilliant scientist, idealistic with respect to the pursuit of science, but only superficially oriented in politics. With respect to sending out the DPG letter, the Commission concluded that Debye found the situation inescapable. The Commission pointed out that the Royal Dutch Academy of Sciences also took away Albert Einstein's honorary membership, emphasizing the circumstances in which these decisions had be taken. The Commission stated that now, seventy years later, no judgment can be made concerning the decision of Debye to sign this letter in the exceptionally difficult circumstances in which he then found himself. Nevertheless, the Commission describes the DPG letter as an extraordinarily unpleasant fact, forming a dark page in his life history. Finally, the Commission concluded that based on the NIOD report since no bad faith on Debye’s part has been demonstrated, his good faith must be assumed and recommended that the University of Utrecht retain the name of the Debye Institute of NanoMaterials Science and that the University of Maastricht continue to associate itself with the Peter Debye Prize. Utrecht University accepted the recommendation, Maastricht University did not. But in February 2008, the Hustinx Foundation (Maastricht), originator and sponsor of the Peter Debye Prize, announced that it will continue to have the prize awarded. The City of Maastricht, Debye's birthplace, declared that it sees no reason to change the names of Debye Street and Debye Square.

Awards and honors



  1. ^ "Peter Joseph Wilhelm Debye (1884 - 1966)". Retrieved 2009-03-27.  
  2. ^ Debye is buried in the rear section of the cemetery, near the northwestern corner.
  3. ^ a b Sybe Rispens, Einstein in Nederland. Een intellectuele biografie Ambo/Anthos 2006 [ISBN 90-263-1903-7]
  4. ^ Stichting Edmond Hustinx and Christian Bremen (ed). Pie Debije-Peter Debye: 1884-1966. Gardez! Verlag (2000)
  5. ^ Davies, Mansel. “Peter Joseph Wilhelm Debye: 1884-1966.” Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of The Royal Society Vol. 16 (1970), pp.175-232
  6. ^ Williams, J. W. “Peter Joseph Wilhelm Debye.” Biographical Memoirs, V. 46 (1975) National Academy of Sciences [U.S.])
  7. ^ a b G. van Ginkel, Prof. Peter J. W. Debye in 1935-1945. An investigation of historical sources, December 2006, ISBN 90-393-4284-0. Van Ginkel on Debye
  8. ^ Sime, Ruth Lewin. Lise Meitner: A Life in Physics. University of California Press (1997)
  9. ^ Sime, Ruth Lewin. “Lise Meitner’s Escape from Germany.” Am. J. Phys. 58(3), (1990), pp262-267
  10. ^ H. Rechenberg, Physik. Blätter, 44, Nov 1988, page 418
  11. ^ Interview given to Gooi & Eemlander newspaper (Dutch language) February 2, 2006
  12. ^ Press release Utrecht University Debye Institute 16 February 2006 Link
  13. ^ Article by Dr. Gijs van Ginkel (in Dutch)
  14. ^ Press release University of Maastricht 16 February 2006 Link
  15. ^ Link - Peter Debye: A Typical Scientist in an Untypical Time Dieter Hoffmann and Mark Walker March 2006
  16. ^ Veltman letter to the Utrecht University's Board of Directors
  17. ^ Cornell University Report
  18. ^ Enserink M (2006). "ETHICS: Blocking a Book, Dutch University Rekindles Furor Over Nobelist Debye". Science 312 (5782): 1858. doi:10.1126/science.312.5782.1858. PMID 16809496.  
  19. ^ UU weer beschuldigd van censuur Arjan Dijkgraaf Chemisch Weekblad Link (Dutch language)
  20. ^ NRC Handelsblad May 19, 2007
  21. ^ In naam der wetenschap? P.J.W. Debye en zijn carrière in nazi-Duitsland Martijn Eickhoff 2007 Summary in English
  22. ^ (Dutch) NRC Handelsblad November 27, 2007 Link
  23. ^ de Volkskrant December 31, 2007
  24. ^ Note that this statement is in sharp contrast to the conclusion reached in a previous study of the DPG's relationship to the Third Reich which describes the DPG to be one of the last professional organizations in Germany to expel its Jewish members.
  25. ^ Terlouw Commission: ‘Continue using Debye’s name’ Press release University of Utrecht

External links


Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From Wikiquote

Peter Joseph William Debye (March 24, 1884November 2, 1966) was a Dutch physicist and physical chemist, and Nobel laureate.


  • Mathematical physics is in the first place physics and it could not exist without experimental investigations.
    • Inaugural lecture for his professorship of mathematical physics at the University of Utrecht (1913), as quoted by Davies, Mansel. Peter Joseph Wilhelm Debye: 1884-1966. Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of The Royal Society, Vol. 16 (1970).

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