As a writer who occasionally traffics in the words of others (with suitable acknowledgement), I know that attribution can be a tricky business. Take the quotation above, which is hardly obscure. Look it up on Google, and you will find it referenced some 164,000 times, including innumerable memes. The trouble is that its authorship is variously attributed to Planck, self-help guru Wayne Dyer, the Tao Te Ching and even that old standby, Albert Einstein. Einstein, of course, made a name for himself as a theoretical physicist and even during his lifetime was looked upon as an oracle on subjects far removed from E=mc2. Dyer’s name is most often attached to the quotation when it appears as a meme, although he himself apparently attributed it to the Tao Te Ching, a work of Taoist sayings attributed — there’s that word again — to the sixth-century B.C.E Chinese sage Lao-Tse.
The meaning of this quotation takes on different shadings, depending on whose name is attached to it. Lao-Tse lends an air of ancient Eastern wisdom to the statement. Einstein’s authorship inevitably suggests that it may reflect the fundamental workings of the universe. Dyer, whose books bear titles like The Sky’s the Limit and Wishes Fulfilled, places the quotation in the realm of positive thinking, as if to say, “Always look on the bright side of life.” But what about Max Planck, whose name I have affixed to the inscription above?
Planck was an older colleague of Albert Einstein, a fellow German-born physicist whose career intertwined with Einstein’s in significant ways. He was, most notably, the editor of the physics journal that published the five groundbreaking papers in 1905 that established the younger man’s reputation when he was still an obscure clerk in the Swiss patent office. The two became friends and made music together, Einstein on violin and Planck on the piano. Einstein is generally credited with having stood classical physics on its head, but, in truth, Planck had already done so with his foundational work in quantum mechanics, which earned him a Nobel Prize in 1918, three years before Einstein did the same.
The quotation attributed to Planck might be understood in light of his explanation for why electromagnetic radiation emitted from heated objects doesn’t conform to the wavelengths predicted by classical theories of thermodynamics. According to theory, light of every wavelength should be emitted, but this proved not to be the case. Planck hypothesized that light was emitted in discrete packets he called quanta whose wavelengths were evenly divisible by a mathematical constant now known as Planck’s constant. Einstein said Planck’s discovery “shattered the whole framework of classical mechanics and electrodynamics and set science a fresh task: that of finding a new conceptual basis for all of physics.”
As a 17-year-old freshman at the University of Munich, Planck’s physics professor told him all the important discoveries in physics had already been made, and all that remained was to fill in the gaps. Planck was comfortable with that, which may explain why he was slow to appreciate the revolutionary implications of his own discovery. Einstein, who as a student was never popular with his own professors because he challenged everything they said, was quick to recognize that Planck’s quantum theory of light would require that the laws of physics be rewritten.
One of the papers Einstein published during his annus mirabilis in 1905 noted that light behaved like both a particle and a wave. So which was it? As succeeding generations of quantum theorists pursued the question, they concluded that of elementary particles remain in an indeterminate state until they are observed. Electrons, for example, can take on the attributes of a particle or a wave, depending on how they are measured. Both Planck and Einstein, who between them had lain the theoretical foundations for quantum physics, were profoundly disturbed by its implications, which seemed to suggest that the universe did not exist independently of an observer.
Planck, who remained at heart a classical physicist to the end, nevertheless gradually came around to the view that he had opened the door to something radically new, even if he didn’t much like where quantum theory was leading. In a lecture in 1911, more than a decade after his initial breakthrough, he said, “I do not believe I am going too far if I express the opinion that with this hypothesis the foundation is laid for the construction of a theory which is someday destined to permeate the swift and delicate events of the molecular world with a new light.” Indeed. When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change. Planck may never have said this in so many words. But if he didn’t, he could have.