James Franck - a researcher with principles

James Franck (1882-1964), at the University of Göttingen (1921-1933). Photo: Göt

James Franck (1882-1964), at the University of Göttingen (1921-1933). Photo: Göttingen State and University Library (SUB)

University of Göttingen commemorates landmark appointment 100 years ago   September 17 marks the day of the ceremonial inauguration of the University of Göttingen in 1737. This is an opportunity to take a look back at our University’s history and to commemorate special historical events, such as the appointment of the scientist James Franck, who took up his professorship 100 years ago in the summer semester of 1921.

"Fixing the generator, procuring stoves and repairing seats in the small lecture hall" were, according to Dr Holger Berwinkel, items that James Franck brought to the negotiation table during his appointment shortly after the end of the First World War. According to Berwinkel, Head of the Göttingen University Archives, this was characteristic of him: Franck was one of the most important natural scientists of the 20th century, not only because of his research, but also because of his attitude. Born in Hamburg in 1882, he had made a name for himself together with Gustav Hertz for their discovery of the laws governing the impact of an electron upon an atom. He was to receive the Nobel Prize for this in 1925. He owed his appointment at Göttingen University to a student friend, the theoretical physicist Max Born. Professor Born had already received the call to apply to Göttingen and wanted Franck at his side as an experimental physicist.

"The appointment of both Franck and Born marks the beginning of a golden age of physics at Göttingen," says Berwinkel. It established quantum mechanics and created a unique atmosphere at the campus of the Physics Institutes in Bunsenstraße. There was a welcoming and international spirit that allowed students and graduates, men and women from many countries to develop their scientific ideas. Göttingen became synonymous with modern physics worldwide. Franck is described by sources held at the University Archives as a decidedly methodical worker who built his research on simple and clear principles. And this meant fundamental research in atomic physics flourished at Göttingen at this time.

1933 witnessed the destruction of the Göttingen "Nobel Prize miracle" as the Nazi government expelled Born and other Jewish scientists. Although of Jewish origin himself, Franck could have stayed on as a war veteran. However, he wrote to the principal in April 1933 that he refused to take advantage personally of this privilege and in the current circumstances, his own conscience demanded that he was unable to remain an employee of the state. He did not find support for this stand at the University, which largely chose to play an active role in the creation of Nazi society.

Franck emigrated and managed to find a second academic home for himself in the USA. Despite all the injustice he had experienced, he remained - as the surviving letters show - affectionately attached to Göttingen and its University, the Georgia Augusta as it is fondly known. "I hope that schools and universities will help every young German to strengthen the sense of their own responsibility," he wrote in 1957, reflecting on the Nazi era. The memory of this courageous researcher is part of our history. He passed away here in Göttingen in 1964 during a visit.


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