Debye stamp

And now for some light entertainment. In 1995 the Dutch postal services have issued a series of stamps with portraits of Dutch Nobel price winners (1936). Peter Debye (1884 - 1966), one of the godfathers of small angle scattering, was one of the persons honoured in this way. Harry Brumberger, a post doc of Debye in the States, told me that he recognised the apparatus on the picture as a small angle light scattering instrument that one of his fellow post docs had used.

DebyeStamp

 

Another post-doc, Ben Chu, told me that the reason that Debye got involved in small angle scattering was because of the war. Debye was director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Berlin in 1939 but didn’t like the fact that the ruling powers wanted him to give up his Dutch nationality and therefore decided to try to get to the States. He accepted a post in Cornell in 1940 (and obtained the American nationality in 1946). When the war broke out the access to the rubber plantations of East-Asia was blocked by the Japanese. Synthetic rubbers had been invented but in the manufacturing process the determination of the molecular weight was quite important. This is something that can be tackled with small angle light scattering. This he considered to be his best possibility to give a contribution to the war effort.

 

Debye controversy

In 2006 a book was published by the author S. Rispens on the contacts that Albert Einstein had in the Netherlands. In this book it was strongly insinuated that Peter Debye was a NAZI sympathiser. Clearly this book created some controversy. Obviously such severe allegations should be based on hard and proven facts and not on circumstantial evidence and dubious reinterpretation of facts.

The original book Einstein in Nederland, S. I. Rispens, only appeared in Dutch and is only available second hand. A reprint or English translation is unlikely after Nobel price winner Martinus Veltman retracted his foreword and denounced the description of Debye in the book (It takes an honest and brave man to admit to such a mistake).

In the booklet Prof. Peter J.W. Debye (1884-1966) in 1935-1945. Brilliant scientist. Gifted teacher. An investigation of historical sources (2006) by Gijs van Ginkel, most of the issues are discussed. The pdf file is made available with the written permission of the author Gijs van Ginkel.

A commission instigated by the universities of Utrecht and Maastricht with the politician, but physics educated, Jan Terlouw as chairman, concluded later that Peter Debye was maybe no resistance hero but definitely no NAZI sympathiser. Their findings were based upon research commissioned by the Dutch Ministry of Education (Report Martijn Eickhof; In naam der wetenschap?; Nederlands Instituut voor OorlogsDocumentatie; no ISBN number; year 2008). This report is in Dutch but has 5 page long abstracts in German, English and Dutch.

In a recent article in Nature an even stranger twist in the story is discussed. Philip Ball (2010) cites J. Reiding (Ambix, 2010) and supports the idea that Peter Debye could have been "an informer to the Allies during the approach to the Second World War".

Whatever Peter Debye was, no one deserves to be unjustly slandered in the way that he was in this affair.

Utrecht University continues to use Peter Debye’s name for the chemistry and physics institute (cf. Debye Institute for NanoMaterials Science).

 

History of SAXS as a research tool

It is maybe interesting to know how young small angle scattering as a research tool is. Although Debye died in 1966 and Guenther Porod in 1984 other ‘founding fathers’ only recently passed away. Otto Kratky died in 1995, Andre Guinier, the author of the first monograph on SAS (1955) in 2000, Paul Schmidt in 1998, Harry Brumberger, the organiser of the first real SAS conference (Syracuse, 1965), in 2000. Another well known person associated with the advent of small angle scattering, Vittorio Luzatti, was the recipient of "Lifetime achievement award" at the 2009 SAS conference in Oxford. I hasten to add that this list of names is not exhaustive.


Links to international organisations

International Union of Crystallography
IUCr Small Angle Scattering Commission
European Crystallographic Association