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Friedrich Wilhelm Ostwald

Friedrich Wilhelm Ostwald


German Chemist, Philosopher and Color Theorist

Co-founder of the discipline of physical chemistry, Wilhelm Ostwald (1853-1932) won the 1909 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for work on catalysis, electrochemistry, and solution theory. A prolific researcher with an engaging personality, he wrote 45 books and almost 500 articles, and edited six journals. His experimental results and techniques reshaped chemical theory by their integration with concepts and methods drawn from physics.

Born and raised in Riga, Latvia, Ostwald enrolled at the University of Dorpat (now Tartu in Estonia) in 1872, receiving his doctorate in 1878. After serving as a laboratory assistant and non-salaried lecturer, he became a professor at the Riga Polytechnic Institute in 1881, where he gained fame as a teacher and researcher. In 1880 he married Helene von Reyher, a surgeon's daughter; of their five children, Wolfgang became a noted colloid chemist, and Gretel wrote her father's biography. In 1887 the University of Leipzig offered Ostwald the world's only professorship in physical chemistry. During his 19 years there, his laboratory became an international research center that pioneered the modern methods of professor-graduate assistant collaboration. At his retirement in 1906, Ostwald's students, eventually including three Nobel laureates, held 45 of almost 50 new chairs in physical chemistry.

During the later 1800s, organic chemistry dominated chemical research. Studies focused on static properties of chemical composition and structure—isolation and identification of chemical elements, analysis and synthesis of organic compounds, and theories of molecular shapes and functional groups. However, Ostwald's attention turned instead to unresolved problems involving dynamic chemical processes—reaction velocity, mass action (the effectively participating proportions of reactants), chemical equilibrium (the final balance between reactants and products), and affinity (the relative degree of attraction between various reactants).

Since chemical methods change the nature of a reaction, they cannot be used to measure the rates at which chemical processes occur. Ostwald realized that such processes can be studied instead by measuring changes in the physical properties that accompany chemical reactions in solutions, such as specific volume (mass per unit volume, the inverse of density), viscosity (resistance to fluid motion), refractive index (degree of deflection of a beam of light), rotation of polarized light, and electrical conductivity. Applying these techniques to hundreds of acid-base reactions, Ostwald obtained precise numerical values for chemical affinities, which previously could only be described qualitatively. This made it possible to predict and measure the speed and efficiency of chemical reactions.

In 1884 Ostwald's work garnered vital support from two fellow chemists. Svante Arrhenius (1859-1927), who became Ostwald's assistant, explained chemical reactivity as the result of dissociation of molecules in solutions into electrically charged particles or ions, while Jacobus van't Hoff (1852-1911) applied concepts from thermodynamics, or the physics of heat and temperature effects, to the analysis of chemical processes. Their ideas provided Ostwald theoretical explanations for his experimental results on affinities and reaction rates. In 1887, by then close friends, they founded the research journal Zeitschrift für physikalische Chemie to propagate their controversial new ideas, for which all three won Nobel prizes.

In 1888 Ostwald formulated his famous "dilution law," relating electrical conductivity and chemical activity in weak acid-base solutions to increasing dilution and ionic dissociation. During the 1890s, his researches shifted to the study of catalysis, or the acceleration of chemical reaction rates by use of a facilitating reagent that itself remains unchanged. Ostwald's findings related catalytic activity to ionic dissociation, electrical conductivity, and the energy states of chemical solutions, and made consideration of intermediate reaction stages and of time indispensable factors in chemical analysis. The use of catalysts is now part of virtually every industrial chemical process.

Beginning in 1891, unresolved problems involving contemporary atomic theories and thermodynamics led Ostwald to reject atomism for the radical theory of "energism," which posited that only energy exists, with matter being merely a manifestation of local energy complexes. Ultimately he advocated a "chemistry without matter," which sought to explain all chemical phenomena solely in terms of energy types and transformational processes. Initially given a respectful hearing, Ostwald's views were generally rejected after a celebrated debate with his opponents at the 1895 Lübeck conference.

Ostwald finally retracted his opposition to atomism in 1908, but by then he had recast energism as a general philosophy, arguing that the laws of thermodynamics proved the efficient application of all forms of energy to be the highest moral principle of mankind. From 1906 to 1914, working as a free-lance philosopher and scientific popularizer, he used his "energistic imperative"—"Do not waste energy; utilize it!"—to promote a wide variety of social reform schemes. When the outbreak of World War I dashed these hopes, Ostwald turned until his death in 1932 to a third career as a color theorist. In a laboratory on his estate "Haus Energie" in Grossbothen near Leipzig, he developed an original system of standardized color scales and patterns of harmonization, based on precisely measured gradations between shades of black, white and gray. While heavily criticized in German artistic circles, Ostwald's ideas have exerted considerable influence in German dye and fabric industries and in art schools in Britain and the United States.


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