Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Max Planck on innovation and age

Howard Fischer
Uppsala, Sweden


Gravedigger. 1940. Library of Congress. 

Max Planck (1858–1947) was born in Kiel, Germany, to an educated family. He earned his Ph.D. in physics in 1879 from the University of Munich. His quantum theory, in which he postulated that energy is released in discrete units and not continuously, won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1918. Planck’s work is considered to have revolutionized physics. He was an accomplished musician (piano, organ, and cello) and an early supporter of Einstein, who did not yet have a doctor’s degree or a university position. Planck refused to join the Nazi Party and was vocal in his support of Jewish physicists. His son Erwin was executed in 1945 for his role in the 1944 plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler.1,2

“Planck’s principle” states that “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”3 The statement has sometimes been summarized as “Science progresses one funeral at a time.”4

The veracity of this “principle” has been studied. One study contradicted the Planck principle by showing that older geologists accepted the plate tectonic theory earlier than younger ones.5

Another study, which tracked the written opinions of 78 scientists from 1859–1869, demonstrated that age had no influence on their acceptance of the theory of evolution of species.6,7

It is worth noting that while age does not seem to influence the acceptance of new ideas by scientists, “middle aged scientists were more apt to make revolutionary discoveries than any other age group.”8 The mean age of “scientific revolutionaries” was 38 years, which may not sound middle-aged to the modern reader, but the mean life expectancy for a European man in 1900 was 40.5 years (41.6 years for a woman), and in 1950 was 55.5 years (59.4 years for a woman).9

If it is as Wray (2023) writes—“Planck’s principle is a myth”10—and age does not influence the acceptance of a new idea, the discovery of new ideas, it seems, comes from the less young.11



  1. “Max Planck.” Wikipedia.
  2. Shaunacy Ferro. “17 little-known facts about Max Planck.” Mental Floss, 2017. https://www.mentalfloss.com/article/502908/17-little-known-facts-about-max-planck.
  3. “Planck’s principle.” Wikipedia.
  4. “Planck’s principle.” Wikipedia.
  5. “Planck’s principle.” Wikipedia.
  6. Sharon Levin, Paula Stephan, and Mary Walker. “Planck’s principle revisited: A note.” Social Studies of Science 25, 1995.
  7. Brad Wray. “Reflections on method in philosophy of science.” 3:16, 2023. https://www.3-16am.co.uk/articles/reflections-on-method-in-philosophy-of-science.
  8. Brad Wray. “Is science really a young man’s game?” Social Studies of Science 33, 2003.
  9. Johan Mackenbach and Caspar Looman. “Life expectancy and national income in Europe, 1900-2008: An update of Preston’s analysis.” International Journal of Epidemiology 42(4), 2013.
  10. Wray, “Reflections.”
  11. Wray, “Young man’s game.”



HOWARD FISCHER, M.D., was a professor of pediatrics at Wayne State University School of Medicine, Detroit, Michigan.


Summer 2023  |  Sections  |  Science

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