Sunday, April 15, 2012

Svante Arrhenius: A Man of Many Interests

Svante Arrhenius
(1859 - 1927)
I'm sorry it's been awhile since my last post, but classwork caught up with me at last. I've been planning to write on Svante Arrhenius for two months now, when he came up in several homework assignments at the same time, and I expected this to be a simple post to write, since Arrhenius is best known, in my opinion, for his equation connecting the activation energy of a process and its kinetics. First, I found out that this was not the work for which he earned the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, and, more surprisingly, I discovered that he was also one of the first scientists to work out the effects of the greenhouse effect and he also postulated global warming resulting from human CO2 production. So between classwork, research, and Arrhenius being a more complicated person to write on than I though, this post has taken a while.  I will do my best to represent what Arrhenius actually wrote about global warming, but I can't read everything he wrote about the subject for this short post, so if you are curious, I would encourage you to look at some of his original writings, which are referenced and linked throughout.

Arrhenius was born in Vik, Sweden, in 1859.  His father was a land surveyor associated with the University of Uppsala, and the following year the family moved to Uppsala.  Here Arrhenius studied at the cathedral school, showing aptitude in mathematics.  He studied chemistry, physics, and mathematics at the University of Uppsala, but wanted a more rigorous physics education and went to Stockholm to study with Erik Edlund.  His work there resulted in his thesis, "Investigations on the galvanic conductivity of electrolytes."  This post's moral for graduate students is don't be discouraged if people think your ideas are wrong.  When Arrhenius submitted this thesis to the University of Uppsala, some of the professors were doubtful of its merit.  He proposed what is now universally accepted, that some chemical species dissociate in water into positive and negative ions, and that the degree of dissociation can depend on the concentration.  Michael Faraday (1791-1867) had already proposed ionic species, but only in the presence of an electric current.  In the end, his thesis was accepted.

One of the main proponents of his ideas was Wilhelm Ostwald (1853-1932), with whom Arrhenius was able to work as a result of a travel grant from the Academy of Sciences in the late 1880s.  He also worked with Ludwig Boltzmann (1844-1906), an Austrian physicist who was a proponent of the atom and a developer of statistical thermodynamics; Jacobus van 't Hoff (1852-1911), a Dutch chemist who studied, among other things, chemical kinetics and osmotic pressure; and Frederich Kohlsrauch (1840-1910), a German physicist also interested in the conductivity of electrolytic solutions.  Arrhenius's theory of electrolytes helped to explain some abnormalities in osmotic pressure data that van 't Hoff had found, and his discussions with these men enabled him to elaborate on his theory of dissociation to explain increases from the expected boiling point elevations and freezing point depressions in some materials by species dissociation.  These men were all instrumental in the formation of the modern field of physical chemistry. It was for this work, begun in his dissertation, that he won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1903.

As I mentioned before, Arrhenius also studied the greenhouse effect.  The greenhouse effect, that the Earth's atmosphere can trap heat from the sun, had been proposed earlier by Joseph Fourier (1768-1830) in the 1820s.  John Tyndall (1820-1893), proved that both water and carbon dioxide can act as what we now call greenhouse gasses.  Arrhenius took their ideas and applied them to the question of whether the cycles of ice ages could be explained by changes in carbon dioxide in the air.  He did the extensive calculations to show that if the amount of carbon dioxide in the air doubled, the temperature of the earth would increase by five to six degrees Celsius.  He published these findings in the the Philosophical Magazine and Journal of Science under the title "On the Influence of Carbonic Acid in the Air upon the Temperature of the Ground" in 1896.  He had worked with his friend Arvid Högbom (1857-1940), a professor of geology at the University of Uppsala, who had considered carbon dioxide cycles over time.  Arrhenius went further, and in his book Worlds in the Making (1908, p. 54), suggested that the burning of coal could be leading to an increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, though much of it is absorbed into the oceans.

Arrhenius lived for thirty more years and did many more things, including being the head of the Nobel Institute for Physical Chemistry.  But, I've gone on for a bit about him already and hit some of the highlights, so I'm going to stop here.  If you are still interested in Arrhenius, you might want to look up his writings on popular science (including Worlds in the Making and Life of the Universe); his work on hydroelectric power, the electrification of the Swedish railroads, and immunochemistry; and his successful efforts to obtain the release of scientists made prisoners of war during World War I.  But to touch on those would mean more for you to read, and, more importantly, more for me to research, so I will leave Arrhenius with that.

Other works by Arrhenius

References and further reading