Marian Smoluchowski

Author: Anna Musiał

A man who explained why the sky is blue



Marian Smoluchowski lived in at a time of groundbreaking discoveries in the Physics world and he was a part of them. During his scientific career he worked alongside such personalities as Einstein, Boltzmann and Kelvin and while their names are familiar to a large group of people, the name of Polish physician is only known among those who use his work in their daily job.


Marian Smoluchowski was born in 1872 in the village of Vorder-Brühl near Vienna. His father, Wilhelm was a well known clerk and his mother, Teofilia Szczepanowska, hailed from a notable Polish family. His parents wanted him to receive the best education from the very beginning - That’s why he attended Theresianum, which was one of the best known colleges in the whole of Europe, intended for the children of high ranking officials, like his father. Even though at first Smoluchowski was attracted by the humanities, it was Physics that later became his greatest passion. He was an excellent pupil. His Physics teacher, Alois Hofler, wrote about his students such a comment: “Hasenöhrl was the best of my students, Smoluchowski- above the best (allerbester)”.


After graduating high school with distinction, he decided to study Physics at the University of Vienna. He began his studies in 1890 and was taught, among others, by Franz Exner and Josef Stefan, who were both well known and talented scientists. In such an inspiring environment he published his first paper and in 1895 was awarded a doctorate with the highest distinction.


Marian Smoluchowski with

his newly married wife - Zofia

After completing his studies Smoluchowski spend two years travelling and working in laboratories all across Europe. He visited Paris, Glasgow, where he produced several papers in collaboration with Kelvin, and finally Berlin. At the age of 28 he became the youngest professor in the vast Austro-Hungarian Empire as he was appointed Professor of Theoretical Physics. He received many offers from world famous universities but finally decided to take up the Physics department in the University of Lvov, because, as he mentioned in his letters, he wanted to dedicate his work directly to his homeland.


Marian Smoluchowski is mainly known in the science world as one of the creators of the kinetic theory of matter. He presented arguments towards the existence of density fluctuation caused by the grainy structure of physical substances. Based on this discovery he explained (side by side Albert Einstein) the Brownian motion phenomenon (chaotic motion of particles in a fluid). This explanation was an important argument in the acceptance of the existence of atoms. His work contributed to the creation of a whole new branch of science- Statistical Physics. Additionally his work led him to give the right answer to one of the most intriguing questions in people's minds “why is the sky blue?”. He correctly suggested that it is a consequence of light dispersion on fluctuations in the atmosphere. In 1916 he proposed the equation of diffusion in an external potential field which bears his name to this day.


The work of Marian Smoluchowski is independent but closely correlated to Albert Einstein’s. Their discoveries were so bonded, that often, Einstein’s kinetic theory equation is known as Einstein-Smoluchowski relation.


Marian Smoluchowski and

his wife on a mountain trip

Smoluchowski’s hunger for discovering the unknown wasn’t revealed only in science. Apart from Physics he had also a great passion for mountains. Alongside his brother, Tadeusz, they were known as one the leading alpinists in Europe. They climbed 6 unconquered summits and set 24 new paths in the Alps and the Tatra mountains, for which they received many awards. Tadeusz and him were also pioneers in promoting mountain skiing. During the years 1911-1912 Marian Smoluchowski was a chairman of the Tourist Section of the Tatra Society. He wrote many articles about mountain climbing for several magazines.


But this is not the end of Smochulski’s talents. He was also a very good pianist (thanks to his mother who passed on to him her passion for music) and a painter. He used to carry paints and canvas to his mountain expeditions to eternalize the beauty of routes he walked through.


His last 4 years, Smoluchowski spend in Cracow at Jagiellonian University. In 1917 he had the honour to become a rector there. Unfortunately in the same year he got an infection during swimming in a river and died of dysentery. He was only 45 years old.


The death of the Polish scientist was a shock for the European and worldwide science community. The condolence letters were coming to Krakow from the biggest universities. “Everybody who knew Smoluchowski personally, valued him not only as a great scientist, but also because he was noble, sensitive and a great-hearted man…. Fate prematurely ended his activity as an explorer, however, we should keep high respect to his work and to a memory about his life”- these are Einstein’s words.


Many contemporary scientists say, three Nobel Prizes from the first half of the 21st century (for R.A Zsigmondy in Chemistry, for J.B Perrin in Physics and for T.Svedberg in Chemistry) are dearly owed to Smoluchowski’s work, and without his early death, he would probably have been a co-laureate of them.


Marian Smoluchowski had a great impact on the world’s Physics development. His three most important works were quoted in over 6 000 scientific pieces.



If you want to read more: