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James Franck

A key figure in the development of quantum physics, Franck was known for his quiet manner and his intuitive grasp of problems in atomic structure.


Nobel medal

Nobel prize in physics, 1926.

When Franck left Denmark in 1935, he did not take his Nobel medal with him. To prevent it from falling into the hands of the invading Nazis in 1940, George de Hevesy dissolved the medal in aqua regia. Recast from the original precipitate after the end of the war, it was presented to Franck a second time in 1952.


Franck's security pass

University of Chicago, security pass, November 19, 1942.

Shortly before Enrico Fermi conducted the first controlled, self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction, Franck reluctantly joined the Manhattan Project. Appointed head of the chemical laboratory that worked with "actinades," including the new man-made plutonium, Franck left the project before the war ended.


James Franck | Physical Chemistry

After winning the Nobel prize in 1926, the career of James Franck took several sharp turns as the world drifted toward war. Shortly after Hitler's rise to power, Franck resigned as a professor of physics at the University of Göttingen to protest the Nazis' newly passed anti-Semitic legislation. An academic refugee, he taught at Johns Hopkins and Copenhagen before making his way to the University of Chicago, where he remained on the faculty until his death in 1964.

Trained as a physicist, Franck's interests in photosynthesis led him progressively into the fields of chemistry and biology. By applying the principles of physics and physical chemistry to photosynthesis, Franck felt he could explain the process more accurately. Although the problems proved to be more resilient than he anticipated, his work remains important today. Since his death, some of his most important and controversial claims have been proven correct.

Franck worked in an era when the intellectual foundations of science were being transformed, its secure Newtonian base weak-end by the challenges of relativity. With the development of the atomic bomb, many scientists found themselves confronting moral challenges as well. Franck was one of those whose concern with these moral implications led to philosophical introspection and political action. There had been some preparation for this. While Franck might have yearned for the comparatively quiet decades of the late nineteenth century, his experience under Hitler and the fate of many friends and colleagues who remained in Germany convinced him that the evil Hitler both represented and embodied could not be tolerated.

As the bomb neared completion, Franck and some others working on the Manhattan Project became convinced of the need for restraint and caution as the United States government decided on its use. In the famous "Franck Report," he joined with other prominent scientists voicing concern over the precedent the use of the bomb on populated areas would set. Their argument that a preliminary demonstration of the bomb's force in an unpopulated area would persuade Japan to surrender was not accepted, and the debate over Hiroshima and Nagasaki continues today.

After the war, despite the high hopes for permanent peace and establishment of the United Nations, the potential for future wars seemed to increase. Franck recognized the new set of perils and argued that the only hope for a stable future was for a complete exchange of scientific data among nations. As the fear and paranoia of the Cold War settled in, his voice was lost amid growing mistrust between East and West.

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