50th Anniversary: Death of Peter Debye

50th Anniversary: Death of Peter Debye

Author: ChemViews

Peter Debye was born on March 24, 1884, in Maastricht, The Netherlands, as Petrus Josephus Wilhelmus Debije. He studied electrical engineering in nearby Aachen, Germany, and then moved from Aachen to Munich with Arnold Sommerfeld, who made important contributions to atomic structure theory. In Munich, Debye completed a Ph.D. in theoretical physics in 1908.

In 1911, Debye joined the University of Zurich, Switzerland, as Professor of Theoretical Physics, succeeding Albert Einstein. There, he developed a model for the temperature dependence of heat capacities, building on Einstein’s work. He also performed groundbreaking work on molecular dipoles, which later caused the unit of the dipole moment to be named debye (symbol: D) after him. Debye left Zurich in 1912 and was appointed Professor of Mathematical Physics and Theoretical Mechanics at the University of Utrecht, The Netherlands. He had intended to perform experiments on dipole moments but did not find the necessary laboratory facilities in Utrecht. He instead made important contributions to the theory of dielectric dispersion, lattice vibrations, and X-ray diffraction intensities.

In 1914, Debye moved to Göttingen, Germany, where he found the opportunity to branch out into experimental work. He planned to use X-ray diffraction to find evidence for the atomic model postulated by Niels Bohr. To this end, Debye studied powdered lithium fluoride together with his assistant, Paul Scherrer. These experiments did not lead to the desired information on atomic structure, but inadvertently caused the discovery of powder X-ray diffraction for the crystal analysis. During his time in Göttingen, Debye also used X-ray diffraction to study the structure of liquids and explained the cause of van der Waals forces.

Debye returned to Zurich in 1920, this time joining the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH). He also became Editor of Physikalische Zeitschrift at the time. Together with Erich Hückel, he made important strides in predicting the properties of strong electrolyte solutions. In 1927, Debye became Professor of Experimental Physics at the University of Leipzig, Germany.  Here, his interests turned again to X-ray diffraction studies, this time to determine the molecular structure of gases. In 1934, he moved to Berlin and became Director of the Physical Institute of the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gesellschaft (today’s Max Planck Society).

In 1936, Debye was honored with an unshared Nobel Prize in Chemistry “for his contributions to the knowledge of molecular structure through his investigations on dipole moments and on the diffraction of X-rays and electrons in gases”. In 1940, after the start of World War II, he joined Cornell University, Ithaca, NY, USA , where he remained until his retirement in 1952. He continued his research and used light scattering to determine the characteristics of polymers in solution, of colloidal particles, and of porous solids. Peter Debye died on November 2, 1966, in Ithaca.

Peter Debye is the answer to Guess the Chemist (59).


Selected Publications


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