Childhood & Early Life
Peter Joseph William Debye was born to William Debije and Maria Reumkens in the Maastricht town of Netherlands.
Since his birth on March 24, 1884, Debye spent most of his childhood in his native town. After completing his secondary schooling, in 1901, Peter went to attend the ‘Technische Hochschule’ (Technical Institute of Aachen) in Germany.
Joseph successfully completed his diploma in electrical engineering in the year 1905 and was recruited as a research assistant in Aachen the same year, where he was mentored by Arnold Sommerfeld.
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In 1906, Debye accompanied his mentor who was appointed at the ‘University of Munich’. Working on eddy currents, the budding scientist presented his first paper the following year.
For his doctoral dissertation, Peter studied the pressure resulting in rectangular surface subjected to electromagnetic radiation. He successfully defended his thesis and was awarded a degree in the year 1908.
He continued working as a Privatdozent in Munich until 1911, when he was appointed as a professor of theoretical physics in Zurich. The post at ‘University of Zurich’ was held by renowned physicist Albert Einstein who had moved to Prague.
The year 1912, was a milestone in his career as he made several pioneering discoveries. Through his studies on electric charges in asymmetric molecular systems, he established the relationship between dipole moments, dielectric constant and temperature.
He furthered the concept of specific heat propounded by Einstein, through careful observation of how the phonons contribute to specific heat capacity of a solid substance. The resulting methodology was named ‘Debeye Model’ after the eminent physicist.
Also in 1912, he returned to his homeland, where he accepted an appointment in the ‘University of Utrecht’. After a brief stint in Utrecht, this pioneering physicist moved to Germany the following year, where he taught experimental and theoretical physics to the students of ‘University of Göttingen’.
He studied the effect of thermal movement of atoms on x-ray analysis of crystals and along with Paul Scherrer he strived to achieve a better method to obtain x-ray images of crystals. The duo developed the ‘Debye-Scherrer method’ of deciphering symmetric crystal structures.
In his 1913 publication ‘Interferenz von Rötgenstrahlen und Wärmebewegung’ he described attenuation of x-ray scattering occurring due to thermal motion in condensed matter. His findings culminated in the ‘Debye factor’ which is an indicator of the decrease in intensity of diffraction spots.
The association with Scherrer continued and they established the atomic form factor which described the distribution of electrons in the atom.
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Peter moved to ‘Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich’ in the year 1920, where he was appointed director.
The director along with one of his prodigious student Erich Huckel conducted research on dissociation of electrolytes and in 1923, came up with the ‘Debye–Hückel equation’ an improvised version of the ‘theory of electrical dissociation’, propounded by Arrhenius.
Continuing to study scattering of light, the erudite physicist also elucidated the ‘Compton Effect’ observed in X-rays.
The year 1927, marked his move from Zurich to prestigious ‘University of Leipzig’ where he was granted the professorship of experimental physics.
With Nazi occupation of Germany, he moved to Berlin where he headed the physics department of ‘Kaiser Wilhelm Institute’ (‘Max Planck Institute’) in 1934. Two years later he also accepted a professorship in the ‘Fredrick William University’; a post he held simultaneously while working as the director of the ‘Max Planck Institute’.
Like most scientists of his time, he left Germany and settled in the United States of America. Here he was appointed a professor at the ‘Cornell University’ on 1940. Debye spent the remainder of his academic career at this institute until his retirement twelve years later.
The accomplished scientist continued his research on scattering of light even in retirement; which were now focussed on calculation of weight and size of macromolecules using techniques of light scattering.
Personal Life & Legacy
Peter exchanged nuptial vows with Mathilde Alberer on April 10, 1913. The couple had two children; a son named Peter Paul Ruprecht and daughter named Maria. Their son went on to become a chemist and even assisted his father in several experiments.
The world saw the last of this eminent scientist on November 2, 1966 when he succumbed to a heart attack. He was interred in USA at the ‘Pleasant Grove Cemetery’.