Svante August Arrhenius

Svante August Arrhenius Svante August Arrhenius was born at Uppalsa, Sweden, on February 19, 1859 His intelligence and creativity were apperent nt from an early age–he taught himself to read when he was three Although credi ted with many scientific innovations, he remains best known for his ionic theory of solutions, For which he was awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1903 Arrhenius henius died in Stockholm on October 2, 1927 Science is a human endeavor subject to human frailties and governed by personalities, politics, and prejudice ces. One of the best illustrations of the often bumpy path of the advancement of scientific knowledge is the story of Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius.

When Arrhenius henius began his doctorate at the University of Uppsala around 1880, he chose to study the passage of electricity through solutions. This was a problem that had baffled scientists for a century, The first experiments had been done in the 17 70s by Cavendish, who corn pared the conductivity of salt solutions with that of rain water, using his own physiological reaction to the electric shocks he rece ived! Arrhenius had an array of instruments to measure electric current, but the process of carefully weighing, meas uring, and recording data from a multitude of experiments was a tedious one. After his long series of experimerits were performed, Arrhenius quit his laboratory bench and returned to his country home to try to formulate a model that could account for his data, He wrote, “I got the idea in the night of the 17th of May in the year 1883, and I could not s leep that night until I had worked through the whole problem.” His idea was that ions were responsible for conducting electricity through a solution. B ack at Uppsa]a, Arrhenius took his doctoral dissertation containing the new theo ry to his advisor, Professor Cleve, an eminent chemist and the discoverer of the elements holmlum and thulium. Cleve’s unlnterested response was what Arrhenius had expected.

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It was in keeping with CIeve’s resistance to new ideas he had not even accepted Mendeleev’s periodic table, introduced ten years earlier. It is a long standing custom that before a doctoral degree is granted the disse rtation must be defended before a panel of professors. Although this procedure i s still followed at most universities today, the problems are usually worked out in private with the evaluating professors before the actual defense. However, w hen Arrhenius did it, the disserta tion defense was an open debate, which could be rancorous and humiliating. Knowing that it would be unwise to antagonize his professors, Arrhenius downplayed his convictions about his new theory as he de t ended his dissertation.

His diplomacy paid off: he was awarded his degree, albei t reluctantly, as the prolessors still did not believe his model and considered him to be a marginal scientist, at best.Such a setback could have ende d his scientific career, but Arrhenius was a crusader; he was determined to see his theory triumph. Recognizing his low credibility in his home coun try, he sen t his dissertation first to Rudolf Clausius, a German seientist who had fimnulat ed the second law of thermodynamics, but Clausius wasn’t interested. He next app roached Lothar Meyer, another German scientist who had gained prominence for his work on the periodicity of the clements, but Meyer was also unresponsive. Final ly, Arrhcnius found the right champion in Wilhelm Ostwald, a German profes sor o f chemistry at Riga.

Ostwald, already known as a defender of revo lutionary chem ical causes, fully accepted the idea that reactions in solu tion often involve i ons. In 1885 Arrhenius began work ing in Ostwald’s laboratory, continui ng his research on ions. Reading everything he could find on the sub jeer, he ca me across a research paper written by a Dutch scientist, Jacobus van’t Heir, whi ch was particularly helpful in placing the ionic theory on firmer gnound.In 1887 Arrhenius went to Amsterdalm to nicer van’l Heft At 22 years of age, van’t Help had postulated the existence of stereochemistry; that is, that atoms in molecules have definite relative positions in space. This theory was initially criticized harshly, and van’t Heft, aided by Ostwald, had to fight to have it accepted.

The ionic theory was yet another unaccepted theory for which both Ostwald and van’t Heft’ would extend their support. By the time Arrhenius returned from Amsterdam, Ostwald had moved to Leipzig, where he had be come professor of chemistry. It was there that Ostwald and Anhenius put together a promotional strategy that would have done credit to a canny politician.In the then new journal Zeitschrift fur Physikalische Chemic, Ostwald wrote about the ionic theory, and finally the European scientific establishment began to listen.

Arrhenius’s classic paper “On the Dissociation of Substances in Aque ous Solulhms” was published in 1887. The ionic theory had become one of thc most ctmtroversal issues in science. Although Ostwald, van’t Holt, and Arrhenius continued to champion the cause vigorously. many scientists remained vebenmently opposed to the theory.

In fact, even though Arrhenius was by then a prominent scientist, his appointment as Professor of Chemistry at the University of Stockholm was highly con troversial.Ultimately, the ionic theory triumphed. Arrhenius’s fame spread, and honors were heaped on him, culminating in tile Nobel Prize in chemistry. Nol one to rest on his laurels, Arrhenius turned to new fields, in cluding astronomy; he formulated a new theory that the solar system may have come into being through the collision of stars. His exceptional versatility led him to study the use of serums to tight disease, energy resources and conservation, and the origin of life.