Sunday, February 19, 2012

Svante August Arrhenius

Svante August Arrhenius was born on February 19, 1859 in Vik, a village near Uppsala, Sweden. His father, Svante Gustaf Arrhenius, was a land surveyor who worked for the University of Uppsala. The family moved to Uppsala in 1860. A gifted child, Arrhenius learned to read from lessons given by his older brother Janne. He learned to do arithmetic by watching his father keeping the accounts that he was responsible for. At age 8 he entered the local cathedral school, starting in 5th grade. He excelled at mathematics and physics, graduating as the youngest and most able student in 1876. In the autumn of 1876 Arrhenius entered the University of Uppsala, where he studied mathematics, physics and chemistry. He finished his bachelors in January 1878, finishing in a year and a half, a record at the time.

After a trip to Paris, he began his graduate studies in physics at the University of Uppsala, but due to the poor instruction he moved to Stockholm, studying under Erik Edland at the Physical Institute of the Swedish Academy of Sciences. Arrhenius began working for Edland studying electrical spark discharges, but moved on to studying the dissolution of electrolytes in water. Electrolytes are chemicals that when added to water make a solution that conducts electricity. Arrhenius discovered that electrolytes, when dissolved in water, break up into negatively and positively charged particles called ions. His thesis was not well received by his professors and was given the lowest possible passing grade.  Only after his defense was it raised to a third class rating.

 Arrhenius sent his thesis to two of the leading physical chemists of the time, Jacobus van't Hoff and Wilhelm Ostwald. Ostwald was so impressed that after some correspondence he traveled to Uppsala to offer Arrhenius a docent position in Riga, which at that time was part of the Russian Empire. Arrhenius decided to stay in Sweden and he was given an unpaid docent position at the University of Uppsala, the first such position in the emerging science of physical chemistry. In 1885, with the recommendation of Edland he received a traveling fellowship from the Swedish Academy of Science that allowed him to travel through Europe and work with prominent physical chemists. In 1886 he traveled to Riga to work with Ostwald and to Wurzburg to work with Friedrich Kohlrausch. In 1887 he traveled to Graz to work with Ludwig Boltzmann and in 1888 he traveled to Amsterdam to work with van't Hoff. During these trips he studied the effects of ions in solution, including the increase in the boiling point and lower the freezing point of ionic solutions versus pure solvents and the effects of ions in digestion and in the interaction of toxins and anti-toxins.

It was not until 1891, after he refused the offer of a professorship in Giessen, Germany, that he was made lecturer at Stockholm University College and in 1895 he was appointed professor of physics. In 1886 after studying the causes of ice ages he published a paper linking atmospheric carbon dioxide levels and rising temperatures. He calculated that if the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere doubled the temperature would rise by 5o-6oC. Scientists today say that it is really only a 2o-3oC rise in temperature. This rise in temperature is caused by the infrared absorption of carbon dioxide. The sun's rays warm the earth and it cools by releasing infrared radiation. This radiation is absorbed by carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and reflected back to earth, preventing it from escaping back into space. This is called the greenhouse effect, where carbon dioxide in the atmosphere keeps the earth warm by preventing heat from escaping. The cumulative effect of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses give rise to global warming.

Around 1900 Arrhenius became involved with the Nobel Prize. In 1897, with the death of Alfred Nobel, the Swedish scientific establishment was left with the task of organizing the bequest from his will, prizes awarded to outstanding achievements in chemistry, medicine, physics, economics, literature, and peace that benefit mankind. Arrhenius was largely responsible for setting up the rules that govern the prizes. In 1903 he won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry for his work on the "electrolyte theory of dissociation". This was partly work he had done on his doctoral dissertation that only earned third class honors. Other honors he won include election as a foreign member to the Royal Society of England in 1911, the Society's Davy Medal and the Faraday Medal given by the Chemical Society, as well as many honorary doctorates.

Arrenius spent his later years writing  scientific textbooks and science books for a lay audience and he died on October 2, 1927 in Stockholm. He was buried in Uppsala.


Arrhenius, Gustav; Caldwell, Karen; and Wold, Svante; "A tribute to the memory of Svante Arrhenius (1859-1927)"; The Royal Swedish Academy of Engineers (2008)

Sample, Ian; "The Father of Climate Change"; The Guardian; June 30, 2005

Svante Arrhenius Wikipedia Entry

Svante Arrhenius Nobel Biography

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