Svante August Arrhenius was born at Uppalsa, Sweden, on February 19,1859 His intelligence and creativity were apperent nt from an early age–he taughthimself to read when he was three Although credi ted with many scientificinnovations, he remains best known for his ionic theory of solutions, For which hewas awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1903 Arrhenius henius died inStockholm on October 2, 1927Science is a human endeavor subject to human frailties and governed bypersonalities, politics, and prejudice ces. One of the best illustrations of the oftenbumpy path of the advancement of scientific knowledge is the story of Swedishchemist Svante Arrhenius. When Arrhenius henius began his doctorate at theUniversity of Uppsala around 1880, he chose to study the passage of electricitythrough solutions.
This was a problem that had baffled scientists for a century, Thefirst experiments had been done in the 17 70s by Cavendish, who corn pared theconductivity of salt solutions with that of rain water, using his own physiologicalreaction to the electric shocks he rece ived! Arrhenius had an array of instrumentsto measure electric current, but the process of carefully weighing, meas uring, andrecording data from a multitude of experiments was a tedious one. After his long series of experimerits were performed, Arrhenius quit his laboratorybench and returned to his country home to try to formulate a model that couldaccount for his data, He wrote, “I got the idea in the night of the 17th of May inthe year 1883, and I could not s leep that night until I had worked through thewhole problem. ” His idea was that ions were responsible for conducting electricitythrough a solution. B ack at Uppsa]a, Arrhenius took his doctoral dissertation containing the new theory to his advisor, Professor Cleve, an eminent chemist and the discoverer of theelements holmlum and thulium. Cleve’s unlnterested response was what Arrheniushad expected.
It was in keeping with CIeve’s resistance to new ideas he had noteven accepted Mendeleev’s periodic table, introduced ten years earlier. It is a long standing custom that before a doctoral degree is granted the dissertation must be defended before a panel of professors. Although this procedure i sstill followed at most universities today, the problems are usually worked out inprivate with the evaluating professors before the actual defense. However, w henArrhenius did it, the disserta tion defense was an open debate, which could berancorous and humiliating. Knowing that it would be unwise to antagonize hisprofessors, Arrhenius downplayed his convictions about his new theory as he de tended his dissertation. His diplomacy paid off: he was awarded his degree, albei treluctantly, as the prolessors still did not believe his model and considered him tobe a marginal scientist, at best.
Such a setback could have ende d his scientific career, but Arrhenius was acrusader; he was determined to see his theory triumph. Recognizing his lowcredibility in his home coun try, he sen t his dissertation first to Rudolf Clausius, aGerman seientist who had fimnulat ed the second law of thermodynamics, butClausius wasn’t interested. He next app roached Lothar Meyer, another Germanscientist who had gained prominence for his work on the periodicity of theclements, but Meyer was also unresponsive. Final ly, Arrhcnius found the rightchampion in Wilhelm Ostwald, a German profes sor o f chemistry at Riga. Ostwald, already known as a defender of revo lutionary chem ical causes, fullyaccepted the idea that reactions in solu tion often involve i ons. In 1885 Arrhenius began work ing in Ostwald’s laboratory, continui ng hisresearch on ions.
Reading everything he could find on the sub jeer, he ca meacross a research paper written by a Dutch scientist, Jacobus van’t Heir, whi chwas particularly helpful in placing the ionic theory on firmer gnound. In 1887Arrhenius went to Amsterdalm to nicer van’l Heft At 22 years of age, van’t Helphad postulated the existence of stereochemistry; that is, that atoms in moleculeshave definite relative positions in space. This theory was initially criticizedharshly, and van’t Heft, aided by Ostwald, had to fight to have it accepted. Theionic theory was yet another unaccepted theory for which both Ostwald and van’tHeft’ 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 andAnhenius put together a promotional strategy that would have done credit to acanny politician. In the then new journal Zeitschrift fur Physikalische Chemic,Ostwald wrote about the ionic theory, and finally the European scientificestablishment began to listen. Arrhenius’s classic paper “On the Dissociation ofSubstances 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 causevigorously. many scientists remained vebenmently opposed to the theory. In fact,even though Arrhenius was by then a prominent scientist, his appointment asProfessor of Chemistry at the University of Stockholm was highly con troversial. Ultimately, the ionic theory triumphed. Arrhenius’s fame spread, and honors wereheaped on him, culminating in tile Nobel Prize in chemistry.
Nol one to rest on hislaurels, Arrhenius turned to new fields, in cluding astronomy; he formulated a newtheory that the solar system may have come into being through the collision ofstars. His exceptional versatility led him to study the use of serums to tightdisease, energy resources and conservation, and the origin of life.