German physicist who was awarded the 1914 Nobel Prize for Physics for his discovery of the diffraction of X-rays by the atoms or ions in crystals.
Born in Koblenz, the son of a civil servant, von Laue studied at the universities of Strasbourg, Göttingen, and Berlin, where he was awarded his doctorate in 1903 for work done under the supervision of Max Planck. He remained in Berlin until 1909, when he moved to Sommerfeld's Institute of Theoretical Physics in Munich. Brief periods at the universities of Zürich and Frankfurt were followed by service during World War I at Wurzburg, working on improving military communications. By this time von Laue had already gained an international reputation and been awarded a Nobel Prize for his proposal in 1912 that, as crystals were composed of regular arrays of atoms or ions, X-rays when passed through a crystal would behave comparably to light falling on a diffraction grating. Experiments carried out by his students W. Friedrich and P. Knipping, in which copper sulphate crystals were irradiated with X-rays, revealed the presence of regularly spaced dots on the photographic plate placed behind the sample. It was soon realized that these dots could be used to explore the structure of complex molecules.
At the end of the war in 1919, von Laue was appointed to the chair of theoretical physics at Berlin University. In the 1930s he was one of the few senior German scientists to protest at the behaviour of the Nazi government. He strongly condemned the expulsion of Einstein from the German Physical Society and refused to allow the Nazi physicist J. Stark membership of the Prussian Academy. Von Laue retired from his Berlin post in 1943. With the end of World War II, he spent most of his retirement attempting to revive German science. As a sign of his standing in the international community he was invited to England shortly after the war.
Subjects: Science and Mathematics — Contemporary History (Post 1945).