Peter J. W. Debye

National Medal of Science

Physical Sciences

For sustained contributions of major concepts of modern chemistry and especially for the application of physical methods to the understanding of large molecules and their interaction in solution.

For sustained contributions of major concepts of modern chemistry and especially for the application of physical methods to the understanding of large molecules and their interaction in solution.

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Birth
March 24, 1884
Age Awarded
81
Country of Birth
Netherlands
Key Contributions
Debye-Huckel Equation
Awarded by
Lyndon Baines Johnson
Education
Munich University
RWTH Aachen University
Areas of Impact
Theory & Foundations
Affiliations
Cornell University
Other Prizes
Nobel Prize
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Peter J. W. Debye never liked an easy answer. “If a problem is clearly stated, it has no further interest to the physicist,” he said.

Hungry for knowledge, the Dutch-American scientist concerned himself with the structures of atoms and molecules – the state of matter, in other words.

His early experiments focused on dipole moments, drafting equations to quantify the uneven distribution of positive and negative charges in a molecule.

The units of measurement used to quantify this activity are called “debyes,” in his honor.

In 1915, Debye made a revolutionary conclusion about matter, proving that arrangements of atoms are never random and that perfect crystalline structures are not required for the diffraction of X-rays.

His mathematical equations – used to calculate anything from heat capacity to vibrations on the molecular level – laid the foundation for physicists to come.

“Mathematical physics is in the first place physics,” he said, “and it could not exist without experimental investigations.

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