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There is an anecdote that appears in various popular books on physics, about a physics professor who advised a student of his not to pursue a career in physics since almost all that was to be discovered had been discovered, or something to that effect.

Apparently, the story unfolds just before 1900 and the discoveries of radioactivity and quantum physics that overturned much of the classical thinking.

Who was the professor and who was the student? I seem to remember the professor and student both being notable physicists.

And, is this story true or just one of those things that get made up and spread around?

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The anecdote you have in mind concerns Max Planck and his advisor Philipp von Jolly who, in 1874, told the young Planck that it was probably not a great idea to study theoretical physics, since there was not much left to do. With the power of hindsight this is of course extremely ironic since Von Jolly was addressing the man who would personally (though reluctantly) play a large role in the quantum revolution of physics in the early 20th century.

It appears that the source of this anecdote is Max Planck himself. In a 1924 lecture, he told the story as follows:

When I began my physical studies [in Munich in 1874] and sought advice from my venerable teacher Philipp von Jolly...he portrayed to me physics as a highly developed, almost fully matured science...Possibly in one or another nook there would perhaps be a dust particle or a small bubble to be examined and classified, but the system as a whole stood there fairly secured, and theoretical physics approached visibly that degree of perfection which, for example, geometry has had already for centuries.

I found a little collection of different versions of the story compiled here. One of them gives the anecdote as I reproduced it above, with a reference where one can (presumably) find the original lecture by Planck: A 1996 issue of Scientific American. Regrettably, I do not have access to this journal. Another source which has an identical version refers the reader to a book called "Year Million: Science at the Far Edge of Knowledge", which consists of essays by scientists and apparently also contains this lecture by Planck.

Even though I was unable to gain access to this either, I think we can be content that it does exist and that at least Planck himself believed the story to be true.

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  • $\begingroup$ Wikipedia places the story in 1878, and gives a quote from the venerable professor Jolly himself: "in this field, almost everything is already discovered, and all that remains is to fill a few unimportant holes", with a reference to Lightman's book "The discoveries: great breakthroughs in twentieth-century science, including the original papers". I do wonder about the source of the quote, Jolly died in 1884, and the story presumably didn't become famous before 1901. It's odd that nobody quotes any of Planck's writings directly. $\endgroup$ – Conifold Apr 6 '15 at 16:04
  • $\begingroup$ @Conifold I did see the Wikipedia "treatment" of the anecdote, but I really wasn't sure whether it could be trusted (since I have no access to the Lightman book either). The other sources all quote Planck directly and moreover do so in identical fashion, yet from different sources, which suggests that this version is at least real, and that Planck really said it in this way. $\endgroup$ – Danu Apr 6 '15 at 16:11
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    $\begingroup$ Lightman claims that Jolly's quote comes from p.10 of Heilbron's Dilemmas of an Upright Man, which has no such thing. Concerning Planck's account Heilbron gives a reference to 1878 letter to Runge, but it is unclear from his text if the letter contained it books.google.com/… $\endgroup$ – Conifold Apr 6 '15 at 19:31
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The title question is different from the one in the text so I'll add a couple of things. Professor Jolly was not alone in his sentiment. Albert Michelson of the Michelson-Morley experiment fame said in 1894 that "it seems probable that most of the grand underlying principles have been firmly established and that further advances are to be sought chiefly in the rigorous application of these principles to all the phenomena which come under our notice". And added, according to some sources, "An eminent physicist remarked that the future truths of physical science are to be looked for in the sixth place of decimals".

The "eminent physicist" is believed to be Lord Kelvin, who on April 27, 1900 gave a now infamous speech titled "Nineteenth-Century Clouds over the Dynamical Theory of Heat and Light", into which the above quote is often retroactively inserted. The two "clouds" were the absence of the ether wind, and the ultraviolet catastrophe in the black body radiation, which led to the special relativity, and the quantum mechanics, respectively. Some add derisively that if Kelvin also mentioned the anomalous precession of Mercury he could go three for three with general relativity.

These stories are used in many popular books to create an impression of staleness and complacency in the late 19th century physics, before Einstein and Planck "set everybody straight". However, [modern historians are skeptical][1] of such extrapolations. Most theoretical phycisists did not share Michelson's view in 1894, and Michelson himself sounded a different tune in 1902, see Kragh's Quantum Generations, p. 4:"the day seems not far distant when the converging lines from many apparently remote regions of thought will meet on ... common ground." And it wasn't because of Planck's 1900 discovery, Michelson was inspired instead by "one of the grandest generalizations of modern science ... that all the phenomena of the physical universe are only different manifestations of the various modes of motion of one all-pervading substance — the ether."

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  • $\begingroup$ It seems there are two different answers involving different people. So, this situation of predicting the near completion of theoretical physics is not unique in history. Not surprising as I think I remember Stephen Hawking saying in one of his "popular" books that theoretical physics is on the threshold of completion -- just a few i's to dot and t's to cross (or, something similar). When I read that I was certain there would be another big upheaval in physics again just as it occurred with the outing of the nascent Quantum Physics more than 100 years ago. $\endgroup$ – K7PEH Apr 6 '15 at 18:48
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    $\begingroup$ @K7PEH How odd that he would say that given the precedent. And especially since quantum gravity is nowhere in sight, and even grand unification has been stalled for decades. Not to mention dark energy, dark matter, and the nature of the cosmological constant, which are right up his alley. Can you recall which book? $\endgroup$ – Conifold Apr 8 '15 at 0:09
  • $\begingroup$ I can say for certain but I think it was the most recent book, "The Grand Design" which was published just a couple of years ago. I remember that I did not buy that particular book but rather read it during various coffee breaks at B&N. I was very surprised at the statement because I remembered the occurrence of the similar statements made around 1900 that most people remember as being filled with irony. $\endgroup$ – K7PEH Apr 8 '15 at 3:18
  • $\begingroup$ That'd be a truly unbelievably naive statement, if Hawking really said it! $\endgroup$ – Danu Apr 8 '15 at 9:43
  • $\begingroup$ Quote: Stephen Hawking, the British physicist who is the topic of a 2014 biopic, makes a surprising statement in his 1992 book, Black Holes and Baby Universes, about the extent to which physics is almost complete. He says: “Although we have not found the exact form of all [the physical laws], we already know enough to determine what happens in all but the most extreme situations.” Hawking adds that he gives it a 50-50 chance that we will find the exact laws in the next twenty years. $\endgroup$ – K7PEH Apr 9 '15 at 3:00
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Max Planck told this story about his teacher von Jolly in a lecture. I found the following reference in the German Wikipedia:

Max Planck: Wege zur Physikalischen Erkenntnis. Reden und Vorträge, Band 1. Leipzig 1943

http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Philipp_von_Jolly#cite_note-5

(typically for Wikipedia without the page number).

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  • $\begingroup$ Ah, another source for the lecture! :) $\endgroup$ – Danu Apr 6 '15 at 15:48
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By chance, I was also looking for the original reference for some time. Checked Scientific American reference from 1996 cited above, but it does not seem to exist. The page 10, is nowhere and it has some other topics. I used this quote from Wikipedia a month ago for an editorial, which also appears in several books. I regret that I trusted Wikipedia and other books for this quote "in this field, almost everything is already discovered, and all that remains is to fill a few unimportant holes"

Only "Max Planck: Wege zur Physikalischen Erkenntnis. Reden und Vorträge, Band 1. Leipzig 1943" has the original version- right from the horse's mouth on page 128. I used DeepL translator to get the idea

„als eine hochentwickelte, nahezu voll ausgereifte Wissenschaft die nunmehr, nachdem ihr durch die Entdeckung der Energie gewissermaßen die Krone aufgesetzt sei, wohl bald ihre endgültige stabile Form angenommen haben würde. Wohl gäbe es vielleicht in einem oder dem anderen Winkel noch ein Stäubchen oder ein Bläschen zu prüfen und einzuordnen, aber das System als Ganzes stehe ziemlich gesichert da, und die theoretische Physik nähere sich merklich demjenigen Grade der Vollendung, wie ihn etwa die Geometrie schon seit Jahrhunderten besitzt“.

"as a highly developed, almost fully developed science which, now that it has been crowned, so to speak, by the discovery of energy, would soon have assumed its final stable form. There might still be a little dust or bubble at one or the other angle to check and classify, but the system as a whole is quite secure, and theoretical physics is noticeably closer to that degree of perfection that geometry has had for centuries."

Translated with www.DeepL.com/Translator

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