Peter Debye

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Peter Debye (1912)

Peter Debye (Christian name Petrus Josephus Wilhelmus, born March 24, 1884 in Maastricht , Netherlands , † November 2, 1966 in Ithaca , New York ) was a Dutch physicist and theoretical chemist and received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1936 .


His father, Johannes Wilhelmus Debije (1859–1937), was a foreman in the metal goods factory JG Lambriex and his mother, Maria Anna Barbara Ruemkens (1859–1940), was a theater cashier. He had a sister four years younger than him. In his youth he often went to the opera.

Debye received his education in Germany . He studied electrical engineering at RWTH Aachen University and after completing his studies in 1905 worked as an assistant for technical mechanics at the university. He was a student of Arnold Sommerfeld in Aachen , who took him with him to the Ludwig Maximilians University in Munich in 1906 . Debye worked there in the field of theoretical physics and received his doctorate in 1908 with a thesis on radiation pressure. The habilitation followed in 1910 . The following year he became professor of theoretical physics at the University of Zurich as the successor to Albert Einstein , where he stayed for two years. This was followed by professorships at the University of Utrecht from 1912, from 1913 at the University of Göttingen , from 1920 at the ETH Zurich , from 1927 at the University of Leipzig and from 1934 at the Friedrich Wilhelms University in Berlin .

From 1935 Debye was director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physics in Berlin-Dahlem . Between 1936 and 1939 he was also a member of the Senate of the Kaiser Wilhelm Society . As chairman of the German Physical Society (DPG), which he was from 1937 to 1939, Debye felt compelled to send a circular to the remaining Jewish members to resign in 1938. When the National Socialist regime asked Debye to accept German citizenship, he refused; he took a leave of absence, went to the USA with his wife and son in 1940 and taught at Cornell University in Ithaca , New York , from 1940 . At the same time he informed the German authorities that he wanted to suspend his directorship at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute only temporarily. One reason was that he wanted to support his daughter who was still in Berlin. He served until 1945 for setting the magazine as editor of the participation of the Technical Physics and Reichsanstalt published Physics journal . In 1941 he became a US citizen, so that he could then be involved in war-related research on plastics. Even after the war he continued researching polymers. In 1952 he officially retired from Cornell University, but continued research there until his death. Peter Debye died on November 2, 1966 in Ithaca, New York, of complications from heart disease.

He was a member of the Saxon Academy of Sciences in Leipzig, the Prussian Academy of Sciences , the Bavarian Academy of Sciences , the Göttingen Academy of Sciences (1916), the Russian Academy of Sciences (1924), the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1927 ), the American Philosophical Society (1936) and the Heidelberg Academy of Sciences and from 1932 the Leopoldina , from 1947 the National Academy of Sciences .

He received the Priestley Medal in 1963, the Rumford Medal in 1930 , the Franklin Medal in 1937 and the National Medal of Science in 1965 .

In 1970 the lunar crater Debye and in 2002 the asteroid (30852) Debye were named after him.

Lars Onsager and Paul Scherrer were among his doctoral students and his assistant in Zurich, Erich Hückel, was among his habilitation students .

Debye had been married to Mathilde Alberer since 1913, with whom he had a son Peter P. Debye (born 1916), who was also a physicist and also worked with him, and a daughter Mathilde Maria (born 1921). His hobbies included trout fishing and floriculture.

In his honor, the American Chemical Society presents the Peter Debye Award in Physical Chemistry.

Scientific achievements

Debye in the foyer of the University of Leipzig

Debye made outstanding contributions in at least five areas:

  1. in the field of quantum physics : Debye theory of the specific heat capacity of matter at low temperatures (see Debye temperature ). The Debye theory was one of the first theoretical confirmations of the quantum thesis, which was first presented around 10 years earlier.
  2. in electrochemistry : (ion activities, Debye radius ),
  3. in X-ray structure analysis : ( Debye-Scherrer method , Debye-Waller factor )
  4. in the chemistry of electrolytic solutions: ( Debye-Hückel theory )
  5. in the microwave spectroscopy of liquids: ( Debye function ).

In his later research years, he was concerned with understanding polymer molecules. In 1936 he received the Nobel Prize for Chemistry "for his contributions to our knowledge of molecular structures through his research on dipole moments ( Debye equation ), on diffraction of X-rays and electrons in gases ." In 1950 he was awarded the Max Planck Medal .

The cgs unit ( 1 Debye ) of the electric dipole moment was named after Peter Debye .

History debate 2006–2011

In January 2006 a Dutch book by Sybe Rispens ( Einstein in Nederland ) appeared on Einstein's relationship with the Netherlands ; the Nobel laureate Martinus Veltman contributed a foreword. Rispens published Debye's DPG circular from 1938, claiming that Einstein had tried to prevent Debye's appointment to Cornell in 1940 because he had heard of his close ties to the Nazi rulers. Thereupon Utrecht University decided to rename its Debye Institute and Maastricht University not to award the Debye Prize any further. The scientists who protested against these decisions were also joined by Veltman, who withdrew his foreword to Rispens' book in May 2006.

As a result, two commissions dealt with Debye's position on the Nazi regime . They came to the conclusion that Debye was not a party member or supporter of the Nazi regime, did not participate in German war preparations and was not an anti-Semite. Debye considered the expulsion of Jewish members from the DPG to be inevitable under the circumstances; It was pointed out that the Royal Dutch Academy also bowed to the Nazi regime and withdrew Einstein's honorary membership. Rispens' claim that Einstein wanted to prevent Debye's appointment to the United States proved unfounded.

In January 2008, the commission set up by the Universities of Utrecht and Maastricht, headed by Jan Terlouw, recommended that the 2006 decisions be reversed. Utrecht University followed the recommendation and restored the name Debye Institute. The University of Maastricht, however, remained in the process of not participating in the awarding of the Debye Prize; However, the main sponsor of the award announced that it would continue. Debye's hometown Maastricht said they saw no reason to rename Debyelaan and Debyeplein (street and square).


  • Dieter Hoffmann / Mark Walker (eds.): “Foreign” Scientists in the Third Reich: The Debye Affair in Context , Wallstein-Verlag , Göttingen 2011 ISBN 978-3-8353-0625-7
  • Lecture: Wilhelm Wien: Peter Debye: 1936 Nobel Prize. Quantum and molecular physics; Theory of the specific heat of Debye . Literature Agency Danowski, Zurich 2009
  • Christian Bremen / Stichting Edmond Hustinx (ed.): Pie Debije - Peter Debye: 1884–1966 , Gardez! -Verlag, St. Augustin 2000. ISBN 3-89796-048-6
  • Lothar Beyer (Ed.): Ways to the Nobel Prize: Nobel Prize Winner for Chemistry at the University of Leipzig , University of Leipzig, Leipzig 1999 ISBN 3-934178-04-9
  • Dossier on Debye by Dieter Hoffmann
  • Gijs van Ginkel: Prof. Peter JW Debye (1884-1966) in 1935-1945: brilliant scientist - gifted teacher . RIPCN, [Sl] 2006, ISBN 90-393-4284-9 ( PDF ).
  • Martijn Eickhoff: In naam der wetenschap? PJW Debye en zijn carrière in Nazi-Duitsland. Nederlands Instituut voor Oorlogsdocumentatie, Amsterdam 2007, OCLC 435423464 ( PDF ).
  • Erich Hückel: Memories of Peter Debye and of my apprenticeship years. In: Physics Journal. 28, 1972, pp. 53-57, doi: 10.1002 / phbl.19720280202 .
  • EJW Verwey: Levensbericht PJW Debye, year book Königl. Niederl. Akad. Wiss., 1966/67, Amsterdam, pp. 341-348, online at the KNAW
  • JW Williams: Peter Joseph Wilhelm Debye, Biographical Memoirs National Academy of Sciences, Volume 46, 1975, online
  • Stefan L. Wolff: Debye's approach to the exclusion of Jewish members from the DPG , in: M. Walker and D. Hoffmann: Foreign Scientists in the Third Reich , Göttingen 2011, pp. 106-130.

Web links

Commons : Peter Debye  - collection of images, videos and audio files

Individual evidence

  1. Mansel Davies: Peter Joseph Wilhelm Debye. 1884-1966 . Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society, Volume 16, 1970, pp. 175-232
  2. ^ Title page of the Physikalische Zeitschrift , Verlag S. Hirzel, Leipzig, 1945
  3. ^ Member entry by Peter Debye (with a link to an obituary by Walther Gerlach ) at the Bavarian Academy of Sciences , accessed on January 23, 2017.
  4. Holger Krahnke: The members of the Academy of Sciences in Göttingen 1751-2001 (= Treatises of the Academy of Sciences in Göttingen, Philological-Historical Class. Volume 3, Vol. 246 = Treatises of the Academy of Sciences in Göttingen, Mathematical-Physical Class. Episode 3, vol. 50). Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, Göttingen 2001, ISBN 3-525-82516-1 , p. 65.
  5. Debye (moon crater) in the Gazetteer of Planetary Nomenclature of the IAU (WGPSN) / USGS
  6. ^ Peter Debye (1884–1966): Nobel Prize Winner for Chemistry
  7. No enthusiasm for the Hitler salute , in: Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung of July 31, 2011, p. 52