Peter Debye

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Peter Debye was one of the most eminent physical chemists of his time, and his research in the field of molecular structure contributed to a deeper understanding of the topic. He began his academic career at the “University of Munich” after getting a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering, where he studied under luminaries such as Arnold Sommerfeld. When he proposed a shorter explanation of the Planck radiation formula, his expertise in the topic astounded both his peers and contemporaries. When recruited to succeed the great theoretical physicist Albert Einstein at the ‘University of Zurich,’ his reputation was further enhanced. In Zurich, he made his most extraordinary finding. Using the notion of dipole moment, he researched the structure of covalent bonds in great detail and explained it. He even collaborated with Paul Scherrer on a series of light scattering studies, resulting in the “Debye-Scherrer technique.” With the emergence of Nazi persecution, he relocated to the United States, where he spent the remainder of his life teaching and ultimately gained American citizenship. Recent rumors have circulated that he was in league with the Nazis and that, as director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Society, he requested the resignation of Jewish employees. Learn more about his life and works by reading on.

Youth and Early Life

Peter Joseph William Debye was born in Maastricht, Netherlands, to William Debije and Maria Reumkens.
Born on March 24, 1884, Debye spent the majority of his boyhood in his hometown. In 1901, Peter attended the Technische Hochschule (Technical Institute of Aachen) in Germany after completing secondary school.

Joseph earned his diploma in electrical engineering in 1905 and was hired as a research assistant in Aachen, where Arnold Sommerfeld was his mentor, in the same year.

Peter Debye’s Career

In 1906, Debye joined his mentor at the University of Munich, where the latter had been assigned. The next year, the young scientist presented his first study on eddy currents.
Peter examined the pressure exerted on a rectangular surface by electromagnetic radiation for his dissertation. In 1908, he successfully defended his thesis and was awarded a degree.

He remained a Privatdozent in Munich until 1911 when he was appointed professor of theoretical physics at the University of Zurich. Albert Einstein, a prominent physicist who had gone to Prague, held the position at the “University of Zurich.”

The year 1912 marked a turning point in his career, as he made a number of groundbreaking discoveries. He determined the link between dipole moments, dielectric constant, and temperature through his research on electric charges in asymmetric chemical systems.

Einstein’s understanding of specific heat was advanced by his meticulous examination of the contribution of phonons to the specific heat capacity of solids. The resulting methodology was dubbed the ‘Debeye Model’ in honor of the renowned scientist.

In 1912, he returned to his native country and obtained a position at the University of Utrecht. The following year, after a brief stay in Utrecht, this pioneering physicist relocated to Germany, where he taught experimental and theoretical physics at ‘The University of Gottingen’.

Together with Paul Scherrer, he examined the influence of the thermal movement of atoms on x-ray analysis of crystals and worked to develop a better method for obtaining x-ray imaging of crystals. Decoding symmetric crystal structures with the “Debye-Scherrer method” was developed by the duo.

In ‘Interferenz von Röntgenstrahlen und Wärmebewegung’, published in 1913, he described the attenuation of x-ray scattering caused by thermal motion in condensed materials. His research resulted in the ‘Debye factor,’ a measure of the diminishing intensity of diffraction spots.

Continued collaboration with Scherrer led to the development of the atomic form factor, which characterized the distribution of electrons within an atom.

In 1920, Peter relocated to the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, where he was appointed director.
In 1923, the director and one of his brilliant students, Erich Huckel, undertook research on the dissociation of electrolytes and developed the ‘Debye–Hückel equation,’ an improvised version of Arrhenius ‘theory of electrical dissociation.’

In addition to continuing to examine light scattering, the astute physicist also explained the X-ray “Compton Effect.”
In 1927, he moved from Zurich to the prestigious University of Leipzig, where he was appointed professor of experimental physics.

As a result of the Nazi annexation of Germany, he relocated to Berlin in 1934 to head the physics department of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute (now the Max Planck Institute). Two years later, he also accepted a chair at Frederick William University, which he maintained concurrently with his position as director of the Max Planck Institute.

As did the majority of scientists of his period, he departed Germany for the United States. 1940 saw his appointment as a professor at Cornell University. Debye spent the duration of his academic career until his retirement twelve years later at this institute.

Even in retirement, the distinguished scientist continued his study on light scattering, which now focused on calculating the weight and size of macromolecules using light scattering techniques.

Peter’s Major Opera

The study of covalent bonds, for which he devised the ‘Debye Equation,’ was Debye’s most significant contribution to the science of chemistry. He connected the dipole moments to comprehend the electric charge distribution of an asymmetric molecule more thoroughly.

Awards & Achievements

In 1936, the renowned chemist was awarded the ‘Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his groundbreaking research on dipole moments and the use of x-ray diffraction to identify the structure of molecules.

This accomplished scientist was awarded the Priestley Medal in 1963, followed by the National Medal of Science in 1965.

Personal History and Legacy

Peter and Mathilde Alberer exchanged wedding vows on April 10, 1913. The couple had two children: Peter Paul Ruprecht, a son, and Maria, a daughter. Their kid became a chemist and supported his father in various experiments.

This renowned scientist died of a heart attack on November 2, 1966, his last day on earth. He was interred at the ‘Pleasant Grove Cemetery’ in the United States.

Estimated Net Worth

Peter is one of the wealthiest and most popular physicists in the world. According to our investigation, Wikipedia, Forbes, and Business Insider, Peter Debye has an estimated net worth of $1.5 million.


In 2010, Jurrie Reading hypothesized that Peter Debye may have been a member of the British Government’s Secret Intelligence Services.