Photo of Peter J. W. Debye

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.

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.