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Peter Debye

Peter DebyeAKA Petrus Josephus Wilhelmus Debije

Born: 24-Mar-1884
Birthplace: Maastricht, Netherlands
Died: 2-Nov-1966
Location of death: Ithaca, NY
Cause of death: Heart Failure
Remains: Buried, Pleasant Grove Cemetery, Ithaca, NY

Gender: Male
Race or Ethnicity: White
Sexual orientation: Straight
Occupation: Physicist

Nationality: United States
Executive summary: Studied molecular structure, dipoles

Dutch-American physicist Peter Debye (pronounced dē-BYE) studied under Arnold Sommerfeld, and developed methods using induced dipole moments and x-ray diffraction to investigate molecular structures. In 1912 he demonstrated the Debye equation for dipole moments, a means to determine bond angles and the degree of polarity of covalent bonds, which allows the spatial configuration of molecules to be deduced with far greater specificity than had previously been possible. In the same year he advanced Albert Einstein's theory of specific heat, by factoring low-frequency phonons into Einstein's methodology. In 1915 he showed how temperature alters x-ray diffraction patterns in crystalline solids. In 1923, working with Erich Hückel (1896-1980), he introduced the Debye-Hückel equation, a key finding in the modern understanding of electrolytic solutions and the basis for the general theory of strong electrolytes. Though he was inarguably a physicist by training and career, he won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1936, for "his contributions to the study of molecular structure through his investigations on dipole moments and on the diffraction of x-rays and electrons in gases.”

Working at the University of Berlin, he cooperated with Germany's Nazi regime in demanding that Jews resign academic posts, but drew the line when he was ordered to renounce his Dutch citizenship. Instead he fled to America, where he spent the remainder of his career at Cornell University, and became a US citizen in 1946. He also studied electric conductivity in salt solutions, the heat capacity of solids, the theory of polar molecules, and the van der Waals forces between molecules. He is the namesake of the Peter Debye Award in Physical Chemistry, presented annually by the American Chemical Society since 1962.

Father: William Debije (machinist)
Mother: Maria Reumkens Debije
Wife: Mathilde Alberer (m. 1913, one son, one daughter)
Son: Peter Paul Rupprecht Debye (physicist, b. 1916)
Daughter: Mathilde Maria Debye-Saxinger (b. 1921)

    High School: Maastricht High School, Maastricht, Netherlands (1901)
    University: BS Electrical Engineering, RWTH Aachen University (1905)
    University: PhD, University of Munich (1908)
    Lecturer: Theoretical Physics, University of Munich (1910-11)
    Professor: Theoretical Physics, University of Zürich (1911-12)
    Professor: Theoretical Physics, University of Utrecht (1912-14)
    Professor: Theoretical Physics, University of Göttingen (1914-20)
    Professor: Physics, Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Zürich (1920-27)
    Professor: Physics, University of Leipzig (1927-34)
    Professor: Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Theoretical Physics, University of Berlin (1934-39)
    Professor: Chemistry, Cornell University (1940-52)

    Rumford Medal 1930
    Lorentz Medal 1935
    Nobel Prize for Chemistry 1936
    Benjamin Franklin Medal 1937 (by the Franklin Institute)
    Willard Gibbs Medal 1949
    Max Planck Medal 1950
    ACS Kendall Award in Colloid or Surface Chemistry 1957
    Nichols Medal 1961
    Priestley Medal 1963
    Alpha Chi Sigma Chemistry Fraternity
    German Physical Society
    New York Academy of Sciences
    Pontifical Academy of Sciences
    Royal Society Foreign Member
    Russian Academy of Sciences
    Physikalische Zeitschrift Editor (1915-40)
    Units of Measure debye, a measure of molecular dipole moments
    Asteroid Namesake 30852 Debye
    Lunar Crater Debye (49.6° N, 176.2° W, 142 km. diameter)
    Naturalized US Citizen 1946
    Heart Attack Apr-1966
    Heart Attack 2-Nov-1966 (fatal)
    Dutch Ancestry
    German Ancestry

Author of books:
The Collected Papers of Peter J. W. Debye (1954, papers)


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