Svante August Arrhenius (Dictionary of World Biography: Twentieth Century)
Article abstract: Arrhenius was one of the founders of the interdisciplinary science of physical chemistry. He also aided in establishing the international reputation of the Nobel Prizes, clarified the physical effects of light pressure from the sun, and developed the conception, called “panspermia,” that life was introduced on Earth by spores from space.
Svante August Arrhenius was born February 19, 1859, at the castle of Vik, near Uppsala, Sweden. His family had engaged in farming for several generations and had also produced some members of at least modest accomplishment. One relative had written published hymns, an uncle was a scholar, and Arrhenius’ own father had attended the University of Uppsala briefly and held a responsible position as superintendent of grounds for the university.
From an early age, Arrhenius showed skill in calculating, and at the Cathedral School in Uppsala he displayed some ability in mathematics and physics. In 1876, at the age of seventeen, Arrhenius enrolled at the University of Uppsala, the oldest and best-known Swedish institution. There to study physics, he ultimately discovered that his instructors were overly committed to experimental topics and were either unaware of or opposed to the rapid developments in theoretical physics. Thus, in 1881 he moved to Stockholm to study with Erik Edlund. By 1884, Arrhenius submitted his doctoral dissertation to the...
(The entire section is 1730 words.)
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Arrhenius, Svante August (1859-1927) (World of Earth Science)
Svante August Arrhenius was awarded the 1903 Nobel Prize in chemistry for his research on the theory of electrolytic dissociation, a theory that had won the lowest possible passing grade for his Ph.D. two decades earlier. Arrhenius's work with chemistry was often closely tied to the science of physics, so much so that the Nobel committee was not sure in which of the two fields to make the 1903 award. In fact, Arrhenius is regarded as one of the founders of physical chemistryhe field of science in which physical laws are used to explain chemical phenomena. In the last decades of his life Arrhenius became interested in theories of the origin of life on Earth, arguing that life had arrived on our planet by means of spores blown through space from other inhabited worlds. He was also one of the first scientists to study the heat-trapping ability of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere in a phenomenon now known as the greenhouse effect.
Arrhenius was born on February 19, 1859, in Vik (also known as Wik or Wijk), in the district of Kalmar, Sweden. His mother was the former Carolina Thunberg, and his father was Svante Gustaf Arrhenius, a land surveyor and overseer at the castle of Vik on Lake Mälaren, near Uppsala. 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 he 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. 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 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 will 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.
See also Atmospheric chemistry; Greenhouse gases and greenhouse effect