Walther Gerlach

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Walther Gerlach
Walther Gerlach.jpg
Born(1889-08-01)1 August 1889
Died10 August 1979(1979-08-10) (aged 90)
Alma materEberhard Karls University of Tübingen
Known forStern–Gerlach experiment
Scientific career
FieldsExperimental Physics
InstitutionsJohann Wolfgang Goethe University of Frankfurt am Main
Eberhard Karls University of Tübingen
Academic advisorsFriedrich Paschen
Doctoral studentsGertrude Scharff Goldhaber[1]
Heinz Billing[2]

Walther Gerlach (1 August 1889 – 10 August 1979)[3] was a German physicist who co-discovered, through laboratory experiment, spin quantization in a magnetic field, the Stern–Gerlach effect. The experiment was conceived by Otto Stern in 1921 and first successfully conducted by Gerlach in early 1922.[4][5][6]


Gerlach was born in Biebrich, Hessen-Nassau, German Empire, as son of Dr. med. Valentin Gerlach and his wife Marie Niederhaeuser.

He studied at the University of Tübingen from 1908, and received his doctorate in 1912, under Friedrich Paschen. The subject of his dissertation was on the measurement of radiation. After obtaining his doctorate, he continued on as an assistant to Paschen, which he had been since 1911. Gerlach completed his Habilitation at Tübingen in 1916, while serving during World War I.[7]


From 1915 to 1918, during the war, Gerlach did service with the German Army. He worked on wireless telegraphy at Jena under Max Wien. He also served in the Artillerie-Prüfungskommission under Rudolf Ladenburg.[8][9]

Gerlach became a Privatdozent at the University of Tübingen in 1916. A year later, he became a Privatdozent at the University of Göttingen. From 1919 to 1920, he was the head of a physics laboratory of Farbenfabriken Elberfeld, later Bayer-Werke A.G.[7][8]

In 1921, he became a.o. (extraordinary) professor at the Johann Wolfgang Goethe University of Frankfurt am Main. It was before 17. Feb. 1922 that Gerlach succeeded with the experiment on spin quantization in a magnetic field ("Richtungsquantelung"), which is commonly called the Stern–Gerlach experiment, having originally been proposed by Otto Stern and also making use of molecular beam methods developed by Stern. The experiment itself was carried out only by Gerlach, Stern by that time having left for a professorship in Rostock,[10][7][11][5] in Frankfurt some time before 17. Feb 1922. On this day the "critical theorist" Wolfgang Pauli sent Gerlach a postcard with congratulations and the remark "Jetzt wird hoffentlich auch der ungläubige Stern von der Richtungsquantelung überzeugt sein" ("Hopefully the disbelieving Stern will now be convinced of the spin-theory"). The results were published jointly by Gerlach and Stern in 1922.

In 1925, Gerlach took a call and became an ordinarius professor at the University of Tübingen, successor to Friedrich Paschen. In 1929, he took a call and became ordinarius professor at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, successor to Wilhelm Wien. He held this position until May 1945, when he was arrested by the American and British Armed Forces.[7][9]

From 1937 until 1945, Gerlach was a member of the supervisory board of the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gesellschaft (KWG). After 1946, he continued to be an influential official in its successor organization after World War II, the Max-Planck-Gesellschaft (MPG).[7]

On 1 January 1944, Gerlach officially became head of the physics section of the Reichsforschungsrat (RFR, Reich Research Council) and Bevollmächtigter (plenipotentiary) of nuclear physics, replacing Abraham Esau. In April of that year, he founded the Reichsberichte für Physik, which were official reports appearing as supplements to the Physikalische Zeitschrift.[7]

From May 1945, Gerlach was interned in France and Belgium by British and American Armed Forces under Operation Alsos. From July of that year to January 1946, he was interned in England at Farm Hall under Operation Epsilon, which interned 10 German scientists who were thought to have participated in the development of atomic weapons.[7][9][12]

Upon Gerlach's return to Germany in 1946, he became a visiting professor at the University of Bonn. From 1948, he became an ordinarius professor of experimental physics and director of the physics department at the University of Munich, a position he held until 1957. He was also rector of the university from 1948 to 1951.[7]

From 1949 to 1951, Gerlach was the founding president of the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft, which promotes applied sciences. From 1949 to 1961, he was the vice-president of the Deutsche Gemeinschaft zur Erhaltung und Förderung der Forschung (German Association for the Support and Advancement of Scientific Research); also known in short as the Deutsche Forschungs-Gemeinschaft (DFG), previously the Notgemeinschaft der Deutschen Wissenschaft.[7]

In 1957, Gerlach was a co-signer of the Göttingen Manifesto, which was against rearming the Federal Republic of Germany with atomic weapons.[7]

Other positions / Decorations / Honours[edit]


  • Walther Gerlach: Matter, Electricity, Energy: The Principles of Modern Atomistic and Experimental Results of Atomic Investigations (D. Van Nostrand, 1928)
  • Mac Hartmann and Walther Gerlach: Naturwissenschaftliche Erkenntnis und ihre Methoden (Springer, 1937)
  • Walther Gerlach: Die Quantentheorie. Max Planck sein Werk und seine Wirkung. Mit einer Bibliographie der Werke Max Plancks (Universität Bonn, 1948)
  • Walther Gerlach: Probleme der Atomenergie (Biederstein Verlag, 1948)
  • Walther Gerlach: Wesen und Bedeutung der Atomkraftwerke (Oldenbourg, 1955)
  • Walther Gerlach and Martha List: Johannes Kepler. Leben und Werk (Piper Verlag, München 1966)
  • Walther Gerlach (editor): Das Fischer Lexikon – Physik (Fischer Bücherei, 1969)
  • Walther Gerlach: Physik des täglichen Lebens – Eine Anleitung zu physikalischem Denken und zum Verständnis der physikalischen Entwicklung (Fischer Bücherei, 1971) ISBN 3-436-01341-2
  • Walther Gerlach (editor): Physik. Neuasugabe Unter Mitarbeit Von Prof. Dr. Josef Brandmüller (Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag, 1978) ISBN 3-596-40019-8
  • Walther Gerlach and Dietrich Hahn: Otto Hahn – Ein Forscherleben unserer Zeit (Wissenschaftliche Verlagsgesellschaft, WVG, Stuttgart 1984) ISBN 3-8047-0757-2
  • Walther Gerlach and Martha List: Johannes Kepler : Der Begründer der modernen Astronomie München, (Piper Verlag GmbH, 1987) ISBN 3-492-15248-1


  • Walther Gerlach and Otto Stern Das magnetische Moment des Silberatoms, Zeitschrift für Physik Volume 9, Number 1, 353-355 (1922). The article was received on 1 April 1922.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Bond, Peter D.; Henley, Ernest (1999), Gertrude Scharff Goldhaber 1911–1998 (PDF), Biographical Memoirs, vol. 77, Washington, D.C.: The National Academy Press, p. 4
  2. ^ J. A. N. Lee (1995). "Heinz Billing". Computer pioneers. IEEE Computer Society. ISBN 978-0-8186-6357-4. Retrieved 21 February 2016.
  3. ^ "Gerlach, Walther | Frankfurter Personenlexikon". frankfurter-personenlexikon.de. Retrieved 29 October 2021.
  4. ^ Gerlach, W.; Stern, O. (1922). "Der experimentelle Nachweis der Richtungsquantelung im Magnetfeld". Zeitschrift für Physik. 9 (1): 349–352. Bibcode:1922ZPhy....9..349G. doi:10.1007/BF01326983. S2CID 186228677.
  5. ^ a b Gerlach, W.; Stern, O. (1922). "Das magnetische Moment des Silberatoms". Zeitschrift für Physik. 9 (1): 353–355. Bibcode:1922ZPhy....9..353G. doi:10.1007/BF01326984. S2CID 126109346.
  6. ^ Gerlach, W.; Stern, O. (1922). "Der experimentelle Nachweis des magnetischen Moments des Silberatoms". Zeitschrift für Physik. 8 (1): 110–111. Bibcode:1922ZPhy....8..110G. doi:10.1007/BF01329580. S2CID 122648402.
  7. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n Hentschel, 1996, Appendix F; see the entry for Walter Gerlach.
  8. ^ a b Mehra & Rechenberg 2001, p. 436
  9. ^ a b c Bernstein 2001, p. 364
  10. ^ In "Orden pour le Mérite für Wissenschaften und Künste", Reden und Gedenkworte (speeches and "memorials"), vol. 16, 1980, Verlag Lambert Schneider in Heidelberg, pp. 47-53, physicist Wolfgang Gentner (1906-1980), evidently a close friend of Gerlach, points out that it was Gerlach who had by himself- given his extraordinary gift for experimenting - after Otto Stern had already in 1921 left for Rostock, where he had been given a professorship.
  11. ^ Friedrich & Herschbach 2003, p. 53-59
  12. ^ The nine other scientists interned at Farm Hall with Gerlach were: Erich Bagge, Kurt Diebner, Otto Hahn, Paul Harteck, Werner Heisenberg, Horst Korsching, Max von Laue, Carl Friedrich von Weizsäcker, and Karl Wirtz.