The Science of Attrition

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Berlin, 1894, wet like new cement with premonitions carried on its winds like old dust. The city lived as if on the edge of a cliff, waiting for something--anything!--to free up the opportunity to tumble gleefully into the depths of history.


Planck had dreamed of fire.

He sat by the fireplace, a book pried open by one hand and pen loosely grasped in another. There were words on the page, but somehow, in the foggy haze of his dreams, he could not read them. This fact perhaps would’ve been bothersome at any other time, but it seemed almost inconsequential compared to the homely heat of the fire in front of him.

The fire burned. It crackled, popped, leapt up as if alive, but it had always done that. Preposterous that it should be so mesmerizing, but Planck could not tear his eyes away.

That such an ordinary fire should catch his attention so indefinitely did not seem strange, though he was aware of the numerous other things that should be paid attention to at that moment.

Then, in a hot flash, between one thought and another, the fire seared.

It burnt him away, left him blank and void, nothing but empty space, and it kept burning. Even when there was nothing left to burn, when the world was nothing but a dark and charred space, it kept burning.


“I believe,” he said, gravely, with a sort of dull conviction in how matter of fact his voice seemed, “that I may have created something as important as the work of Newton.”

Erwin regarded his father with a fierce brightness in his eyes. His father had always regarded his work with strange stern self skepticism, but this solid conviction was something new and startling. He smiled. “What is it, father?”

“I’ve solved it.”

“The Ultraviolet Catastrophe?”



Planck’s smiles were rare, but he smiled now with the grim satisfaction that always came to him when the world proved to be logical in the face of irrationality. “Discrete energy,” he said, drawing out the notebook with the final equation from his inner pocket. His pace quickened, his son following at his heels as they walk through the snow dusted streets. “I call them quanta! It all works out mathematically and it matches the theoretical data; look, this changes everything.”


Berlin, 1914, in the span of one afternoon, everything changed.


Planck dreamed of a staircase.

Abstract as it was, it stretched out before him, each step bigger and bigger until the great concrete slabs seemed to merely rise up into infinity. Symbolic, concise, a simplification that would do the job in the most rudimentary of manners. Each step, a quantum; eventually, the stairs rose too steeply to climb.

As he watched, Erwin started to climb. He jumped when the steps loomed above his head, hauling himself up each one, higher and higher, further and further away.

“Father!” he shouted, waving from atop the steps. The next one stretched up above him, impossibly high. No matter how high he should jump, he would not climb it.


Berlin, 1918, ravaged and torn and trampled but the backs of its people still ramrod straight in defiance.

He heard his name dimly, as if through a dream. The room burst into applause. He grasped onto the Nobel Prize and looked back at his son, sitting in the crowd. This time, instead of simply grim satisfaction, Planck allowed himself a real smile, lightened with the prize and the return of his son from war.

It was the end of the Great War and the beginning of everything else.


They said the single most defining element of the Great War was that it was a war of attrition. Planck crossed out one uncooperating equation after another, pen scratching through the paper. If the war was one of attrition, then certainly the stubborn theory born of his mind but stretching beyond his own understanding would win.

The damned number, the persistent constant that bore his name--it refused to be reduced.

Persevere, he thought to himself, looking out the window at the dimming light of the day. Winter drew the days short, scattering the light of the dying sun across his desk. Planck sighed, rubbed a hand to his temple and bent back down to work by flickering lantern light instead.


And, then, in between one stroke of his pen and another, there was another war. Escalation and more escalation, he thought, the whole of Germany has jumped to the next step.


Berlin, 1945, shattered streets and smoke-grey skies, the blood on the streets smothering everything else of the city. The city lived as if on the edge of a cliff, precariously balanced on the knife of history, war torn skies swallowing up everything that once was known.

That morning, Erwin had been executed.


Plank dreamed of a door.

It was a simple doorway, cream walls surrounding the gaping opening. Strangely narrow, but enough that a small man could reasonably fit through. There was a ball in his hand, growing heavier and heavier.

It was as if everything he had worked towards in his life was growing wildly out of proportion, threatening to engulf him. The string of numbers he’d first found, when the world seemed to finally make sense--the constant that had taken his name, the very nature of the movement he had sparked--it started to grow. As he watched, the numbers ticked up, rising higher and higher, more and more out of his control.

Planck threw the ball.

It flew in a perfect arc in the air, and then it passed through the door, and then it wasn’t a ball anymore.

He watched as the ball refracted, scattered, dispersing as if it had never been one solid shape to begin with.

About the Author: 
Planck indeed worked on the Ultraviolet Catastrophe and discovered the quantized nature of energy, earning him the Nobel Prize in 1918. Planck's son, Erwin, fought and was captured by French troops in WWI and was executed in 1945 for attempting to assassinate Hitler.