Johannes Stark


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(1874–1957) German physicist and spectroscopist

Born at Schickenhof in Germany, Stark was educated at the University of Munich where he obtained his doctorate and began his teaching career in 1897. Between 1906 and 1922 he taught successively at the universities of Göttingen, Hannover (where he first became a professor), Aachen, Griefswald, and Würzburg. At this point his academic career came to an end. He first tried to start a porcelain industry in northern Germany but the years following World War I were not generous to new businesses. Despite the award of the Nobel Prize for physics in 1919 his attempt to return to academic life was not successful and he had been rejected by six German universities by 1928.

This was due to his general unpopularity and because he had become somewhat extreme in his denunciation of quantum theory and the theories of Albert Einstein as being the product of ‘Jewish’ science. Thus Stark, like Philipp Lenard, began to drift into Nazi circles and in 1930 joined the party. Unlike Lenard, who was content merely to rewrite the history of physics in the Aryan mode, Stark made a real bid for the control of German science. In 1933, although he was rejected by the Prussian Academy of Science, he succeeded in obtaining the presidency of the Imperial Institute of Physics and Technology, which he tried to use as a power base in his attempt to gain control of German physics. His attempt brought him into conflict with senior politicians and civil servants at the Reich Education Ministry, who saw him as too erratic and disruptive a force to be of much use to them, and consequently forced his resignation in 1939. Stark's final humiliation came in 1947, when he was sentenced to four years in a labor camp by a German de-Nazification court.

Stark first observed (1905) a shift of frequency in the radiation emitted by fast-moving charged particles (i.e., a Doppler effect). His other main scientific achievement was his discovery in 1913 of the spectral effect now known as the Stark effect, which won him the Nobel Prize. In this, following Pieter Zeeman's demonstration of the splitting of the spectral lines of a substance in a magnetic field, Stark succeeded in obtaining a similar phenomenon in an electric field. This is a quantum effect but Stark, although an early supporter of quantum theory, began to argue, with typical perversity, against the new theory as evidence for it mounted.

Subjects: Science and Mathematics.

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