German (and Austrian) scientists of the late 19th - early 20th centuries seem to have been the backbone of most of modern physics - namely quantum theory/mechanics. The following are a few predominant names:

  • Max Planck
  • Albert Einstein
  • Max Born
  • Werner Heisenberg
  • Erwin Schrödinger (Austrian)
  • Wolfgang Pauli (Austrian/Swiss)
  • and many more

What was it that caused so many brilliant minds to come out of this area, especially around this time? Was their education system simply that good? Perhaps the culture simply valued knowledge more (we all know of the brilliant German philosophers, as well)?

I know that the Soviet education system (especially towards the mid 1900s) was excellent - Stalin, despite some scientific quirkiness, had valued scientific research and advancement, even if only for the advancement of the Soviets' reputation during the Cold War, and adjusted the education system accordingly from secondary school forward to groom scientists. Was the German system using a similar tactic?

P.S. - could someone edit the tags to something more fitting? I'm not sure which to properly use.

  • $\begingroup$ For a French physicist's perspective, see Pierre Duhem's 1915 La science allemande (tr. by John Lyon in 1991 as German Science: Some Reflections on German Science: German Science and German Virtues). $\endgroup$ – Geremia Jun 21 '16 at 16:31
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    $\begingroup$ Don't forget the en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Martians_(scientists): "The Martians" were a group of prominent Jewish-Hungarian scientists: ... Theodore von Kármán, John von Neumann, Paul Halmos, Eugene Wigner, Edward Teller, George Pólya, and Paul Erdős". $\endgroup$ – asmaier Oct 27 '16 at 11:33
  • $\begingroup$ my impression is that 100 years ago physicist in german were so brilliant and famous was due to an spartan education and the fact that physics was a lot easier then (100 years ago) $\endgroup$ – Jose Javier Garcia May 22 '17 at 20:59
  • $\begingroup$ One contributing factor among countless others was the energy and single-minded dedication of de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Friedrich_Althoff. One source alleges that Althoff's correspondence was so voluminous that he was reading his mail on a regular basis with more than ten assistants in one room. Althoff's role was so important that in the secondary literature there is the technical term de.wikipedia.org/wiki/System_Althoff. Whether this is a symptom or a cause of the golden age of German science would be a moot terminological dispute. $\endgroup$ – Peter Heinig Feb 4 '18 at 13:46

The general question is difficult to answer. Why were the British and Dutch scientists of 17-th century so impressive? Why was French science of the 18-th and 19-th century so impressive, especially in the early part of 19-th century ?

The only thing which is clearly seen, is the correlation of these periods with vigorous economic development of these countries. One can probably conclude that economic development in the modern era is directly related to the progress of science. One cannot deny that since the late 19-th century, that is since the unification of Germany, it was the fastest growing economy in the "developed world".

On the second question, the role of education system, it is probably also related to the economic development, and I have to say that Russian/Soviet education system in the late 19 and early 20 centuries was a copy of the German one. They deliberately copied the German education institutions.

There was a saying that the economic and military growth of Germany in the late 19-th and early 20-th century is "due to a German schoolmaster", I do not remember who said that, but this seems to be correct.

Whether the development of science (and education) was a reason or a consequence of the economic development is open to discussion, and I don't think this can be decided. All we can say is that all three things, science, education and economic development strongly correlate. Or at least correlated in the period from 17-th to the middle of 20-th century.

EDIT. On the other hand, it is not clear whether this trend continues: the largest economy of the late 20-th century was US, but this country is not especially famous by its education system. And it never was. It still imports highly educated people on a large scale.

The largest economy now is China, but China is not famous yet by a matching progress in the fundamental science.

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    $\begingroup$ This seems to be a decent answer to an almost impossible-to-answer question. Nicely done. $\endgroup$ – Danu Dec 16 '14 at 19:02
  • $\begingroup$ Yes, I think political and economic factors are certainly the main reasons. $\endgroup$ – Geremia Jun 21 '16 at 16:24
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    $\begingroup$ There's also a self-reinforcing cycle to these things. Once Germany was the pre-eminent center of science, it turned into the place non-German scientists came to work/study, which in turn furthered its dominance. Oppenheimer, Dirac, Fermi and Teller all studied in Gottengen. You can see a similar in the effect in the US, which became scientifically dominant after WWII, but maintains that dominance in large part because its the place foreign scientists come to study $\endgroup$ – simplicio Sep 26 '16 at 15:33
  • $\begingroup$ I beg to differ. I would argue that there is no sufficient evidence. Say, how do you explain post world war II Japan? On the other hand, economic development seems has more to do with the average performance, rather than the best of the elite. Of course you don't get even any scientist in a tribe(say, with no way of even communication over some distance): economic development is fundamental stuffs, rather than "the philosopher's stone". $\endgroup$ – Shing Sep 28 '16 at 10:39

Given the historical circumstances the German education system might or might not have played a significant role in the formation of these scientists. In his collection of essays entitled "Brocas Brain", Carl Sagan gives some excellent insight into Einsteins biography: (I think this an accurate reprint of the original piece)

Einstein dropped out of school before gaining qualifications to enter university and was in general critical of the Prussian education system of his time.

Browsing through Charles Enz biography of Wolfgang Pauli, I got the impression that he had some excellent teachers but didn't need much education as he had mastered the whole physics curriculum soon after entering university.

Unfortunately I'm not very familiar with the biographies of Planck, Schrödinger, Heisenberg & Born. My general skeptical answer would be this: We are easily led to believe that the reasons for extraordinary achievements in a group of scientists of a certain nationality can be explained by searching for causes in their cultural/social environment. While this might evidently be part of the story it is far from trivial to specify causal chains in this domain. We can fall prey to hindsight bias(we always knew how great the german education system was!) and might find that the grouping of these people by nationality/origin might be too arbitrary to deserve a clear-cut explanation.

My spontaneous answer (which needs more research for corroboration) would be something along the lines of: the success of these people has to be explained by their individual situation/talents plus random input from the environment and the right feedback loops(of which education might be just one) Being around the right people at the right time (Grossmann in Einsteins case) might be more crucial than the (educational) culture in general.


The German/Prussian education system was based on two pillars: The first was a mandatory comprehensive primary public school education with the aim to provide literacy, numeracy and good educational background for everybody (primary school = Volksschule). Even the most deserted villages got their “Volksschule”. The follow up secondary and “Gymnasium” education was highly demanding, strongly selective and elitist, based on Wilhelm von Humboldt’s humanistic universal curriculum. In addition, there were established very ambitious natural science and mathematical “Real-Gymnasiums”. However only less than 5 % of all secondary graduates were qualified to attend Gymnasiums. The second pillar were the Universities being even more demanding and selective. The renowned German “Professor” was among the most respected personalities. Austria and Hungary also adopted this elitist system. Notably the “Fasori Evangélikus Gimnázium” in Budapest was a spring of later Nobel Laureates like Eugene Wigner and John von Neumann and other distinguished scientists


protected by HDE 226868 Nov 30 '16 at 22:25

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