The Student Hans

1920s and 1930s

Hello. My name is Hans*, and I am currently working on my doctorate at the 1st Physics Institute in Göttingen under Robert Wichard Pohl. I hope to obtain my PhD in 1935. Years ago, as a very young university student, I had the pleasure of attending the Professor’s introductory lecture and I would like to share my fond memories of this “circus” with you. Soon afterwards, I enrolled in the “Pohl School” as a doctoral student where I have had the great honor of becoming closely acquainted with the Professor both as a specialist and as a private individual. Although I have successfully settled in here, the political ascension of the Nazi Party alarms me because of changes they intend to make at the University. Pohl appears unconcerned by these developments.

* Hans is a fictional character.


Best Viewed in Darkness

After the First World War, an ever-growing cohort of University students meant that lecture halls were filled to capacity. Pohl decided to use shadow projection to ensure that all attendees could experience the demonstrations featured in his introductory lecture. His simple experimental setups were projected as silhouettes onto a wall using an arc lamp as a light source, allowing him to perform a greatly enlarged shadow play that could be followed in detail from the back row. Pohl integrated light, shadow and his experimental devices into a successful system to illuminate fundamental principles of physics.

Caption: Excerpts from a silent film shot by Fritz Lüty at a summer party in 1952 at the old physics institute. This is the only known film showing Pohl during one of his lectures. (SUB University of Göttingen, Pohl estate)

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What a SHOW!

Professor Pohl’s lecture is simply one-of-a-kind! Brimming with fun and humor, he presented a wide range of experiments that, despite the distractions, delivered a clear understanding of the concepts. Pohl does not hesitate to be his own guinea pig. For example, he sits and spins in his swivel chair to demonstrate the conservation of angular momentum. I often hear his colleagues from theoretical physics grumble: “It’s all just a big circus!” But…who doesn’t like going to the circus?

With unrestrained physicality, Pohl’s assistants become part of the demonstration. These photographs of cast shadows were taken before 1930 for publication in Pohl’s physics textbook. (Negative boxes 3.2, 3.3 and 3.5, Pohl Collection, Physical Cabinet, 1st Physics Institute.)

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Being Pohl’s Student

I am currently hard at work on my doctorate at the “Pohl School”. I am very proud to occupy a place in this small circle of students, held in orbit around our Professor. I think I have come to know Pohl better over time. He demands a great deal from us, but I feel very well guided and cared for—particularly when we walk together through Göttingen city forest, lost in discussion about the deeper mysteries of physics. Although our group continues to experiment and publish at a great pace, much of the Professor’s important research remains unknown. Most people simply associate the name “Pohl” with a unique lecture style.

Fritz Lüty (1928-2017) was the last doctoral candidate to submit a thesis under Pohl’s supervision. In 1965, he was offered a professorship at the University of Utah in the USA. Interviewed in 1982, Lüty speaks in depth about the experience of having Professor Pohl as his teacher and mentor.

„I think Pohl when he was younger was besides being a very good scientist – and he made a lot of innovations – was somewhat of a dictator at the institute, but the older he became he become really more tolerant, more open, more [gets interrupted: He didn’t care so much] and then really he widened his horizon and… so I was with him in a stage when he was a really great to be adviser and of course I respected him a lot.“

“Ich glaube, als Pohl jünger war, war er nicht nur ein sehr guter Wissenschaftler – und er hat viele Innovationen gemacht -, sondern er war auch so etwas wie ein Diktator am Institut, aber je älter er wurde, desto toleranter, offener, [wird unterbrochen: Er hat sich nicht so sehr darum gekümmert] und dann hat er wirklich seinen Horizont erweitert und… also ich war mit ihm in einer Phase zusammen, in der er ein wirklich toller Berater war und ich habe ihn natürlich sehr respektiert.”

“I think it’s partly really that the institute somehow had a very strong personal tradition which was very much cherished there, and which had good sides and its throwbacks because it breeds a little bit this closed atmosphere.”

“Ich glaube, es liegt zum Teil wirklich daran, dass das Institut irgendwie eine sehr starke persönliche Tradition hatte, die dort sehr gepflegt wurde, und die auch ihre guten Seiten hatte und ihre Kehrseiten, weil sie ein bisschen diese geschlossene Atmosphäre hervorbringt.”

Interview of Fritz Lüty by Kris Szymborksi, 1982 June 4, Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics, College Park, MD USA.

„I heard lots of stories. [gets interrupted: What have you heard about him?] well I mean, I think in the old times he was very very strict, in terms of… I mean I heard stories which, that young people for instance who were at the institute, of course they were not well paid, I mean they were doing a diplomdoc, maybe there a little bit. Then they for some reason wanted to marry, had a girlfriend or had to marry and whatever. And this was something he dreaded to tell Pohl, because I mean I heard cases I mean that when someone came and said that he shouted at him and said: ‘Man, how do you want to feed a wife? I think you should first accomplish something and become a scientist.’ So, he had very strict I think ideas how things should go in life, so of course he was an example, he married late in life.“

“Ich habe viele Geschichten gehört. [wird unterbrochen: Was haben Sie über ihn gehört?] Also ich meine, ich glaube, früher war er sehr, sehr streng, was… Ich meine, ich habe Geschichten gehört, dass zum Beispiel junge Leute, die am Institut waren, die waren natürlich nicht gut bezahlt, ich meine, die haben ein Diplom gemacht, vielleicht ein bisschen dort. Dann wollten sie aus irgendeinem Grund heiraten, hatten eine Freundin oder mussten heiraten und so weiter. Und das war etwas, was er Pohl nicht sagen wollte, denn ich meine, ich habe Fälle gehört, ich meine, wenn jemand kam und das sagte, schrie er ihn an und sagte: “Mann, wie willst du eine Frau ernähren? Ich denke, Sie sollten erst einmal etwas leisten und Wissenschaftler werden.’ Also, er hatte, glaube ich, sehr strenge Vorstellungen, wie die Dinge im Leben laufen sollten, und so war er natürlich ein Beispiel, er hat spät geheiratet.”

Now it’s your turn! Given your newfound insight into Pohl’s personality and lecture style, we would like to hear your opinion on his approach to teaching and about your own experiences with teachers and professors. Once you’ve provided your opinion, you can see how others responded.

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Pohl and National Socialism

The seizure of power by the National Socialists in Germany had no identifiable effect on Pohl’s work, but it had significant impact on the Göttingen physics community. Even when Pohl’s good friend James Franck relinquished his chair in the physics department and left Germany due to his Jewish heritage, Pohl made no public comment. It was reported, however, that he included politically-charged anti-Nazi jokes in his lectures during this time. Although he was not politically active and declined an invitation to join a resistance group, Pohl became a member of the University’s denazification committee once World War II ended.

“Pohl likely took pleasure in demonstrating the process that leads to the emergence of the color brown in his major lecture—also included in the optics section of every edition of his textbook—with this evocative formulation: ‘Through agitation, the three individual colors (black, red and yellow) disappear into a uniform brown’, a thinly disguised reference to the Nazi Stormtroopers, commonly known as ‘Brownshirts’.”

aus: Ulf Rosenow, ‘Die Göttinger Physik unter dem Nationalsozialismus’, in Becker et al. (Hrsg.): ‘Die Universität Göttingen unter dem Nationalsozialismus’ Zweite, erweiterte Auflage (München [u.a.]: Saur, 1998), S. 563.

“Referring to the movement of an electron cloud injected into potassium bromide near a cathode, which subsequently migrates as a brown fog to the anode (to the right of the viewer), Pohl comments, ‘And now, when we reverse the polarity of the outer field, the brown mass moves promptly to the left’.” His allusion to the swinging of the political pendulum is readily apparent.

aus: Ulf Rosenow, ‘Die Göttinger Physik unter dem Nationalsozialismus’, in Becker et al. (Hrsg.): ‘Die Universität Göttingen unter dem Nationalsozialismus’ Zweite, erweiterte Auflage (München [u.a.]: Saur, 1998), S. 563.

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