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Laue, Max (Theodor Felix) von

rays crystal experiment diffraction

[low-uh] (1879–1960) German physicist: suggested a classic experiment to show diffraction of X-rays by atoms in crystals.

Von Laue studied physics at four German universities and was also an art student for 2 years. He then taught physics at three universities before settling in Berlin in 1919. He remained professor of theoretical physics there until 1943, when his longstanding antagonism to the racist policy of the National Socialist party led him to resign. From 1946 he worked to rebuild German science. His early work on optics gave support for relativity theory, but he is now best known for his work with X-rays.

Early in this century it had been suggested that X-rays were electromagnetic waves like light but of very short wavelength, although some physicists thought otherwise. It was also believed that the atoms in crystals were in regular array, in accord with their external regularity. Von Laue realized that if both these ideas were true, then the spacing between layers of atoms in a crystal should be of the order of size (10 –10 m) to bring about diffraction of X-rays. In 1912 he tested this idea; an assistant W Friedrich (1883–1968) and a student, P Knipping (1883–1935), passed a narrow beam of X-rays through a crystal of CuSO45H2O and obtained a diffraction pattern of spots on a photographic film placed behind it; a crystal of ZnS served even better. The experiment proved the wave-nature of X-rays and also gave the basis on which the BRAGGS later created X-ray crystallography. Einstein called the experiment ‘one of the most beautiful in physics’ and von Laue was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1914. Always enjoying fast motorcycling and car driving, he was killed in his car, aged 80.

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