Nicholas holds a BS in Geology and a master's degree in education. He has taught secondary Earth space science.
Gustav Ludwig Hertz
You may already know of Heinrich Rudolf Hertz for whom the unit of frequency for electromagnetic waves was named. But did you know that his nephew Gustav Ludwig Hertz was also a Nobel Prize-winning physicist?
Gustav Ludwig Hertz was born July 22, 1887 in Hamburg, Germany. After attending the Johanneum school in Hamburg, Hertz went on to study at universities in Göttingen (1906-1907), Munich (1907-1908), and Berlin (1908-1911). Upon receiving his doctorate in 1911, he went on to work as an assistant to Heinrich Leopold Rubens at the University of Berlin.
His early work in Berlin would be some of his most influential. From 1911 to 1914, Gustav Hertz paired himself with James Franck to conduct a series of experiments now known collectively as the Franck-Hertz experiment. These experiments were the first to demonstrate clearly the quantum nature of atoms, which before had only been theorized. Their work would later earn both scientists the 1925 Nobel Prize in physics.
Unfortunately for Franck and Hertz, their work together ended abruptly in 1914 with the outbreak of World War I as Gustav Hertz enlisted with the German military. Severely wounded in 1915, he returned to Berlin to work in academia. He would later work as a research physicist for the Philips Incandescent Lamp Factory in Eindhoven, Netherlands.
From 1925 to 1928, Hertz headed the Physics Institute at Martin Luther University of Halle-Wittenberg. Afterward, he took a position at the Technical University of Berlin where he worked on a method to separate isotopes through gaseous diffusion.
An Unsure Future
During his years at the Technical University of Berlin, political instability in Germany was mounting. By 1930, the Nazi party was the second largest in Germany, and by 1933, Hitler was constructing concentration camps for German Jews. Even though Hertz had fought for Germany during World War I, he was indeed part Jewish. As a result, Hertz was forced from his post at the university and took a research position with Siemens.
Hertz held this position throughout the war but made a pact with three other German scientists to flee to the Soviet Union as allied troops closed in on Berlin. Soviet forces sought and captured a number of German scientists and research facilities to promote their own nuclear interests. When the German scientists in the pact made contact with the Soviets, they requested to be taken to the Soviet Union on the grounds that their research would go on mostly uninterrupted, that their institutes would not be destroyed, and that they would be protected from prosecution of past political acts.
Research in the Soviet Union
All of Hertz's lab equipment and lab personnel were taken to a new institute constructed for Hertz's research. While working in Institute G in Agudseri, Hertz led research involving the separation of isotopes by diffusion in a flow of inert gasses. The Soviets were particularly interested in separating uranium isotopes to advance their nuclear weapons program and keep up with the Americans.
Hertz remained in the Soviet Union until his return to East Germany in 1954. He was made director of the Physics Institute at the Karl Marx University in Leipzig. Hertz retired in Berlin where he lived until his death on October 30, 1975.
Greatest Contributions and Inventions
In his early work, Hertz made gains in the measurement of ionization potentials in gasses. Working with James Franck on what would be known as the Franck-Hertz experiment, he demonstrated the energy loss of electrons as they collided with atoms. Arguably his greatest contribution to science, he proved that electrons hold discrete quantized states of energy. Results from this experiment confirmed quantum theory and would eventually lead to quantum mechanics, the mathematical description of subatomic particle interactions and positions. The Franck-Hertz tube was the apparatus invented to demonstrate the process.
The Franck-Hertz tube (see image) was filled with mercury vapor. A voltage was run through the heated cathode (C), accelerating electrons toward a positively charged grid (G). Beyond the grid was a negatively charged anode (A) to collect electrons above a certain energy threshold, or a new quantum state.
Hertz invented methods to separate isotopes through gaseous diffusion cascade, a process used to produce enriched uranium. He also published several papers on the measurement of ionization potentials. Gustav Hertz was the recipient of the Nobel Prize (1925), thanks to the Franck-Hertz experiment, and the Max Planck medal, which recognizes great achievements in theoretical physics, from the German Physical Society.
Gustav Ludwig Hertz was a great physicist of his time. Recipient of the Nobel Prize and the Max Planck medal, his work changed our understanding of electron interactions. His achievements included the Franck-Hertz experiment, which confirmed quantum theory, the Franck-Hertz tube, and new methods for separating isotopes. A great scientific mind interrupted by two world wars, one must wonder what he could have achieved under different circumstances. Regardless, his accomplishments were impressive. From his work in Germany measuring ionization potentials in gasses to his time in the Soviet Union researching the separation of uranium isotopes, he is a man who should not be soon forgotten.
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