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European Physical Society

LMU Physics Faculty chosen as historic site

München, 05/05/2015

The Faculty of Physics at LMU has a long and eventful history, and has made important contributions to the development of the discipline. The European Physical Society has now added the building to its list of Historic Sites.

LMU Physics Faculty chosen as historic site

The Faculty of Physics at LMU has earned a distinguished reputation and is internationally renowned for scientific excellence. Even a cursory review of the record reveals that the development of Physics as an autonomous discipline in Munich, and its eventual elevation to the status of an independent Faculty, reflects a steadfast commitment to scientific innovation – interrupted only by the disasters of the Nazi era and the Second World War. Among the illustrious physicists on the Faculty’s roll of honor are Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen, Arnold Sommerfeld, Max von Laue, Max Planck, Werner Heisenberg and Theodor Hänsch. No less than 11 Nobel Prize laureates have studied, taught and carried out ground-breaking research at the University. In recognition of its significant place in the history of the subject, the European Physical Society (EPS), the confederation of national Physical Societies in Europe, has decided to add LMU’s Faculty of Physics to its list of Historic Sites.

The University’s research contributions to the physical sciences go back its first incarnation as an educational establishment. LMU traces its origins to the Hohe Schule, founded in Ingolstadt in 1472. There in 1611, the Jesuits Christoph Scheiner and Johann Baptist Cysat were among the first to observe sunspots with a telescope, a discovery that earned them a place in the history of astronomy.

At that time, Physics was a long way from being a fully-fledged discipline in the modern sense. In the 18th century, the subject slowly found a place among the preparatory courses that students had to take before going on to study one of the four “officially” recognized university disciplines: Theology, Law, Philosophy and Fiscal Policy and Public Administration. Notably, however, a Chair in Elementary Physics was established in the Faculty of Philosophy in 1748, with which luminaries like Joseph Fraunhofer and Karl August Steinheil were later associated.

With the onset of the Industrial Revolution in the early 19th century, the inexorable rise in the status – and the numbers of students – of Physics began. But it wasn’t until the reign of King Max II. Joseph, who took a personal interest in modern science, that the emancipation of Physics from Natural Philosophy was acknowledged at the institutional level. A Department of Mathematics and Physics was created within the Faculty of Philosophy in 1856. Nine years later the Faculty was split into a Philosophical-Historical section and a section devoted to Mathematics and Natural Sciences. To accommodate the continuing increase in student numbers in the succeeding decades, the University was forced to build an extension behind the Main Building on Amalienstrasse in the years 1892-1894. The new building was designed primarily to cater for the needs of Experimental Physics, which was then the fastest growing sector of the discipline. It should however be noted here that the first Chair in Theoretical Physics at LMU had been instituted in 1890. Its first occupant was none other than the great Ludwig Boltzmann, one of the pioneers of statistical physics.

A golden age
The first 20 years of the 20th century ranks as the Golden Age of Physics in Munich, and it began with the appointment of Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen to the Chair of Experimental Physics. A year later Röntgen would win the Nobel Prize in Physics for his discovery of X-rays. The Chair of Theoretical Physics had remained vacant after Boltzmann’s departure in 1894, and Röntgen argued strongly, and ultimately successfully, that the position should be refilled. The candidate finally selected, Arnold Sommerfeld, proved to be an inspired choice. He would go on to train a whole succession of distinguished students – and his Institute became widely known as a nursery for theoretical physicists. Among the famous names mentored by Sommerfeld in the years following the Fist World War were Werner Heisenberg, Hans Bethe and Wolfgang Pauli, all of whom would win Nobel Prizes. In a laboratory in the basement of Sommerfeld‘s Institute, Max von Laue demonstrated the wave nature of X-rays – an achievement that would win him a trip to Stockholm 2 years later. In the early 1950s, no less than 20 of the physics professorships at German universities were held by men who had studied with Arnold Sommerfeld. In a letter to Sommerfeld, Albert Einstein commented specifically on his friend’s qualities as a teacher: “What I most admire is your ability to unearth and nurture such a large number of young talents. (…) You obviously have a special gift for activating and cultivating the minds of your attentive listeners.”

Dark days – Physics at LMU under the Nazi regime
Sommerfeld was one of the few German physicists with whom Einstein maintained friendly relations after the Second World War. In a letter written in response to Sommerfeld’s suggestion that he should agree to be reinstated as a member of the Bavarian Academy of Sciences, Einstein wrote: “Since the Germans murdered my fellow-Jews, I want nothing more to do with them (…). The only exceptions are the few who managed, as far as possible, to hold fast to their principles. I was happy to hear that you were one of them

The baleful influence of the Nazis on the University had an especially devastating impact on the field of Theoretical Physics. The discipline had undergone a rapid and revolutionary transformation since the end of the 19th century. Consequently, it enjoyed less prestige in the eyes of the country’s political masters and of leading members of the academic establishment. Moreover, the decidedly modern character of the ‘new physics’ made it particularly attractive to Jewish physicists – in contrast to experimental physics, which was not free of the taint of anti-Semitism. Young Jewish researchers were dismissed from their posts soon after the Nazi takeover, and were forced to emigrate – a willful expulsion of talent which had lasting consequences for physics in Germany.

Moreover, this was not the only measure implemented by the Nazis that had a sustained and profoundly negative effect on scientific creativity and innovation. For the takeover of power by the Nazi Party also ushered in an era which was dominated by so-called German physics. The prime mover in the promotion of this “alternative” to what he termed ‘Jewish physics’ was Johannes Stark. Stark had studied at LMU, received his doctorate there and was a Nobel Laureate. But he regarded quantum mechanics and the theory of relativity as incompatible with the hallowed tradition of physics as an experimental science. The partisans of ‘German physics’ demanded the reassertion of the primacy of experimental physics, claiming that Jewish physicists had abandoned the experiment as the factual basis of the subject in favor of purely speculative theories based only on “thought experiments”. Although some physicists refused to conform to the dictates of the Nazi Party and rejected National Socialist ideology, they were unable to halt the decline of their discipline that inevitably followed the ostracization and loss of many of its best minds.

Founding of the Faculty of Physics
Today, LMU’s Faculty of Physics is a renowned center of excellence in research and teaching, with particular strengths in Experimental and Theoretical Physics, Astrophysics and Meteorology. But the recovery of its former eminence was a long and difficult process. The Physics Institute itself was destroyed during the Second World War, and its reconstruction, together with the reconstitution of its teaching and research programs, was an arduous task. However, many new academic chairs were set up in the 1960s and new buildings were erected to accommodate the new research groups. In 1971, the significance of the discipline within modern science was finally acknowledged with the founding of a new Faculty of Physics, whose status was further boosted by a series of ancillary institutions: In 1949, the Wendelstein Observatory became a part of LMU, and 1969 saw the inauguration of the Maier-Leibnitz Laboratory for Particle Physics. In 1998 the Center for Nanoscience (CeNS), dedicated to the burgeoning field of Nanophysics, was set up, and was joined in 2004 by the Arnold Sommerfeld Center for Theoretical Physics – both of which were consciously conceived as interdisciplinary institutions.

In 2005 Professor Theodor Hänsch shared the Nobel Prize in Physics. In both rounds of the nationwide Excellence Initiative, two new research clusters, the Nanosystems Initiative Munich (NIM) and the Munich Centre for Advanced Photonics (MAP) received generous funding. In addition, LMU physicists form an integral part of the Universe Cluster, which was proposed by the Technical University of Munich (TUM) and set up with support from the Excellence Initiative.

The history of Physics at LMU reflects the astonishing, and often turbulent, development of the subject over the course of the past two centuries. Today, the Faculty of Physics is an internationally recognized powerhouse for research, and the new EPS plaque will serve as a visible reminder of LMU’s seminal role in the discipline’s history.