October 19, 2010

Peter Debye Battled Theory, Einstein

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Cornell scientists, past and present, are anything but ordinary. The university prides itself in hiring some of the most intelligent people in the world, but its long list of innovative, brilliant, and award-winning minds is bound to have a few misunderstood characters.

Born on March 24, 1884 in Maastricht, Netherlands, Peter Debye is most famous for, in 1912, identifying the dipole moment – the disproportional arrangement of charges in asymmetrical molecules relative to their overall polarity.  He also developed equations relating dipole moments to temperature and the dielectric constant. The units of molecular dipole moments are now called “debyes,” in his honor.

Debye also extended Albert Einstein’s theory of specific heat to lower temperatures by including contributions from low-frequency phonons in 1912, and extended Niels Bohr’s theory of atomic structure, introducing elliptical orbits, in 1913.

In 1936, Debye received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his contributions to the study of molecular structures, as well as other awards. His achievements, however, did not come without controversy.

In Jan. 2006, a chapter in Sybe Rispen’s book, Einstein in the Netherlands, highlighted Einstein’s relationship with Debye, and suggested that Einstein believed Debye to be a Nazi, based on several anti-semitic statements Debye had made.

According to Rispen’s book, Debye wrote in 1938, “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!”

Biographies before Rispen’s work suggest that Debye moved to the US because he refused to accept German citizenship forced on to him by the Nazis.  He, nonetheless, found refuge at Cornell in 1940. He later became chair of the chemistry department. He retired in 1952, but remained in Ithaca for the rest of his life.  He is buried in Pleasant Grove Cemetery.

Cornell’s response to the 2006 scandal was supportive of Debye, and university officials were determined to disband rumors about the professor:  “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.”

Original Author: Maria Minsker