Review: Scientific Autobiography and Other Papers

PlanckScientific Autobiography and Other Papers, by Max Planck, Philosophical Library/Open Road Media, 2014 (originally published in 1949).

Summary: This is a re-issue in e-book form of Planck’s Scientific Autobiography and other papers on some of the “big” issues of science including causality, the limits of science and the relationship of science and religion.

Max Planck is one of the giants of physics. His early work included research on entropy and thermodynamics and it was he who did the pioneering work on quantum theory, for which he won the Nobel Prize in 1918. He also was one of the first to recognize the significance of Einstein’s work on the special theory of relativity and later extended this work.

His Scientific Autobiography is just that, tracing his life in science from his early studies with mathematician Hermann Müller, initial studies in physics at the University of Munich, his later studies in Berlin under the contrasting characters of Helmholtz and Kirchoff and his interest in thermodynamics from reading Clausius resulting in his 1879 dissertation on the Second Law of Thermodynamics. After another paper of the nature of energy, he was appointed associate professor of physics at the University of Kiel. Within four years, he succeeds to Kirchoff’s chair at the University of Berlin. He chronicles the various research projects on which he worked, interacting with Ludwig Boltzmann’s work which led to a derivation eventually know as the Planck Postulate and Planck’s Constant, work that laid the groundwork for quantum theory. His narrative describes the back and forth between scientists, the competition and disagreement between theorists and through all this the emergence of theory that illustrates both the collective enterprise and individual genius behind so many scientific breakthroughs.

The remaining essays discuss various questions of his time in science. Phantom Problems in Science is his attempt to argue that some of the “problems” people argue about in science actually do not exist–they are phantoms–because they are a created problem that does not actually exist in the real world–he includes as examples perpetual motion, the assumption that some mechanism must re-invert the inverted images on our retinas, the question, is an electron a particle or a wave, and the mind-body distinction (although recent neuroscience might suggest there is more to this than Planck believed).

He explores the Meaning and Limits of Exact Science or the idea of “science without presuppositions” that is based on exact observation alone. He argues that the closest we can get to this is what we experience through the senses of our own body and even here we may always draw wrong inferences. What science can do is bring successive degrees of order to these observations, and successive approximations of the “real”. Dealing with causality, he argues that to posit causality involves an act of faith because it is often not possible to verify actual causation of one event by another in specificity, only in general terms.of statistical probability.

His final essay turns to the controversial subject of science and religion. While he dismisses miracles, he does not dismiss religion seeing it as a parallel quest to understand one’s relation to the supernatural to science’s question to understand the natural. He concludes:

Religion and natural science are fighting a joint battle in an incessant, never relaxing crusade against scepticism and against dogmatism, against disbelief and against superstition, and the rallying cry in this crusade has always been, and always will be: “On to God!”

These papers require close attention and one is aided if one has a working knowledge of physics. But Planck offers an important contribution to the philosophy of science, articulating both its power and its limits. Perhaps the re-issuance of these works in new media (this particular version is only available as an e-book, although other versions are in print and on the web) will be a helpful corrective to both the knee jerk reactions against science and the pretensions of scientism in our own age.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through Netgalley. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

One thought on “Review: Scientific Autobiography and Other Papers

  1. Pingback: The Month in Reviews: April 2015 | Bob on Books

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