Arrhenius, Svante August (1859 – 1927) Swedish Chemist and Physicist
Svante August Arrhenius (1859 – 1927)
Swedish chemist and physicist
Young Svante gave evidence of his intellectual brilliance at an early age. He taught himself to read by the age of three and learned to do arithmetic by watching his father keep books for the estate of which he was in charge. Arrhenius began school at the age of eight, when he entered the fifth-grade class at the Cathedral School in Uppsala. After graduating in 1876, Arrhenius enrolled at the University of Uppsala.
At Uppsala, Arrhenius concentrated on mathematics, chemistry, and physics and passed the candidate's examination for the bachelor's degree in 1878. He then began a graduate program in physics at Uppsala, but left after three years of study. He was said to be dissatisfied with his physics advisor, Tobias Thalén, and felt no more enthusiasm for the only advisor available in chemistry, Per Theodor Cleve. As a result, he obtained permission to do his doctoral research in absentia with the physicist Eric Edlund at the Physical Institute of the Swedish Academy of Sciences in Stockholm.
The topic Arrhenius selected for his dissertation was the electrical conductivity of solutions. In 1884 Arrhenius submitted his thesis on this topic. In the thesis he hypothesized that when salts are added to water, they break apart into charged particles now known as ions. What was then thought of as a molecule of sodium chloride, for example, would dissociate into a charged sodium atom (a sodium ion ) and a charged chlorine atom (a chloride ion). The doctoral committee that heard Arrhenius's presentation in Uppsala was totally unimpressed by his ideas. Among the objections raised was the question of how electrically charged particles could exist in water. In the end, the committee granted Arrhenius his Ph.D., but with a score so low that he did not qualify for a university teaching position.
Convinced that he was correct, Arrhenius had his thesis printed and sent it to a number of physical chemists on the continent, including Rudolf Clausius, Jacobus van't Hoff, and Wilhelm Ostwald. These men formed the nucleus of a group of researchers working on problems that overlapped chemistry and physics, developing a new discipline that would ultimately be known as physical chemistry. From this group, Arrhenius received a much more encouraging response than he had received from his doctoral committee. In fact, Ostwald came to Uppsala in August 1884 to meet Arrhenius and to offer him a job at Ostwald's Polytechnikum in Riga. Arrhenius was flattered by the offer and made plans to leave for Riga, but eventually declined for two reasons. First, his father was gravely ill (he died in 1885), and second, the University of Uppsala decided at the last moment to offer him a lectureship in physical chemistry.
Arrhenius remained at Uppsala only briefly, however, as he was offered a travel grant from the Swedish Academy of Sciences in 1886. The grant allowed him to spend the next two years visiting major scientific laboratories in Europe, working with Ostwald in Riga, Friedrich Kohlrausch in Würzburg, Ludwig Boltzmann in Graz, and van't Hoff in Amsterdam. After his return to Sweden, Arrhenius rejected an offer from the University of Giessen, Germany, in 1891 in order to take a teaching job at the Technical University in Stockholm. Four years later he was promoted to professor of physics there. In 1903, during his tenure at the Technical University, Arrhenius was awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry for his work on the dissociation of electrolytes.
Arrhenius remained at the Technical University until 1905 when, declining an offer from the University of Berlin, he became director of the physical chemistry division of the Nobel Institute of the Swedish Academy of Sciences in Stockholm. He continued his association with the Nobel Institute until his death in Stockholm on October 2, 1927.
Although he was always be remembered best for his work on dissociation, Arrhenius was a man of diverse interests. In the first decade of the twentieth century, for example, he became especially interested in the application of physical and chemical laws to biological phenomena. In 1908 Arrhenius published a book entitled Worlds in the Making in which he theorized about the transmission of life forms from planet to planet in the universe by means of spores.
Arrhenius's name has also surfaced in recent years because of the work he did in the late 1890s on the greenhouse effect . He theorized that carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has the ability to trap heat radiated from the earth's surface, causing a warming of the atmosphere. Changes over time in the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would then, he suggested, explain major climatic variations such as the glacial periods. In its broadest outlines, the Arrhenius theory sounds similar to current speculations about climate changes resulting from global warming.
Among the honors accorded Arrhenius in addition to the Nobel Prize were the Davy Medal of the Royal Society (1902), the first Willard Gibbs Medal of the Chicago section of the American Chemical Society (1911), and the Faraday Medal of the British Chemical Society (1914).
Arrhenius, Svante. Chemistry in Modern Life. Van Nostrand, 1925.
——. Theories of Solutions. Yale University Press, 1912.
——. Worlds in the Making: The Evolution of the Universe. Harper, 1908.
Fleck, George. "Svante Arrhenius." In Nobel Laureates in Chemistry: 1901–1992, edited by Laylin K. James. American Chemical Society and the Chemical Heritage Foundation, 1993.