Svante Arrhenius
Svante Arrhenius.

If you’re reading this on the BioSurplus blog, then you probably already know all about the Arrhenius Equation.  Proposed by Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius in the late 1800s, the equation is a formula for the temperature dependence of reaction rates, and is used by chemists around the world in their daily work.

Those of us in the San Diego scientific community might also be familiar with his grandson, Gustaf Arrhenius, a renowned professor of oceanography at Scripps in La Jolla.  And here at BioSurplus, we have the honor of working with Gustaf’s multi-talented son Thomas, a scientist and lab equipment wizard.

Svante Arrhenius gave us much more than an equation.  He was a scientist ahead of his time and one of the founders of physical chemistry; his interest in planetary physics led him to discover the greenhouse effect.

Arrhenius also served on the committee that set the rules by which Nobel Prize winners are chosen every year, and won the prize in chemistry himself in 1903, 20 years after he presented his doctoral thesis on the dissociation of ionic substances.

Arrhenius did not shut himself up in a lab, detached from the rest of the world.  Part of his gift lies in his firm belief in the importance of sharing scientific knowledge with the public.  He wrote many popular science articles and books over the course of his long career, and participated in the scientific debates of his day.


Arrhenius the Man

Svante Arrhenius was born in Uppsala, Sweden in 1859.  He learned to read by listening to the lessons given to his older brother Janne, and mastered arithmetic while watching his father, a rent collector for the local university, as he worked on his accounts.

He enrolled at Uppsala University in 1876 to study mathematics, physics and chemistry, and earned his diploma after only a year and a half of studies, setting a university record in the process.  He began graduate studies in 1878, eventually choosing physics as his primary subject.  His intention was to conduct experimental work at the intersection of physics and chemistry.

Arrhenius’ physics professor at Uppsala did not support this decision, however.  Forced to find another supervisor, Arrhenius asked Erik Edland, a physicist at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences to step in; Edlund accepted, and Arrhenius eventually moved to Stockholm.

In 1882 he began his research into the conductivity of electrolyte solutions, and in 1883 arrived at the theory of the dissociation of ionic substances upon their dissolution in water.  He submitted this work as his thesis in June of that year; amazingly enough his dissertation was given very low marks.  So low, in fact, that Arrhenius, without some sort of intervention, would be unqualified to pursue an academic career.


The Birth of Physical Chemistry

Gustaf Arrhenius with graduate student Stephen Mojzsis
Gustaf Arrhenius with graduate student Stephen Mojzsis.

A great wave of scientific and commercial developments took place in the 1800s.  Research in synthetic organic chemistry led to the production of new products such as building materials, textiles, dyes and fertilizers.  The formulation of thermodynamic principles also now allowed chemists to make precise measurements of properties such as molecular weights and the acidities of synthesized compounds.

Unfortunately, these studies did not belong entirely to either physics or chemistry and published results were not always made widely available.  Scientists Jacobus van’t Hoff and Willhelm Ostwald subsequently founded a journal in 1887 to give legitimacy to the new discipline of physical chemistry.

After his dissertation’s dismal reception, Arrhenius contacted van’t Hoff and Ostwald.  Their endorsement of his work was instrumental in the creation of a position in physical chemistry at Uppsala for Arrhenius.  A year later he received a grant from the Swedish Academy of Sciences to visit Europe’s leading physical scientists over the next three years.

As a result of his travels, Arrhenius began to cultivate an international network of scientists.  When Alfred Nobel died in 1897 and Arrhenius was called upon to assist in the establishment of the rules by which future Nobel Prizes would be awarded, it was determined that a selection committee made up of Swedish scientists alone would not be sufficiently impartial.  Arrhenius called upon his network to help.

Svante Arrhenius was awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1903 for his theory of electrolytic dissociation, twenty years after it was first presented in his dissertation.


The Greenhouse Effect

Arrhenius had a lifelong interest in what he called “cosmic physics” – a combination of geo-physics, cosmology and planetary and space physics.  Later in his career he founded the Physics Society at Stockholms Hogskola, the university where he was a professor.

A presentation by geologist Arvid Hogbom on the geothermic cycle of carbon dioxide attracted Arrhenius’ attention.  According to a paper co-written by his grandson Gustaf, and published by the Royal Swedish Academy of Engineering Sciences:

“Arrhenius became fascinated by what he saw as the role of carbon dioxide, water vapor and clouds as variable infrared active components in planetary atmospheres, leading to retention of solar heat and thus climate control.”

He went on to conduct research into what came to be called the “greenhouse effect,” eventually proving the relationship of the accelerated production of industrial byproduct C02 to an increase in temperatures on earth.


Popular Science

The Arrhenius Equation.
The Arrhenius Equation.

Svante Arrhenius believed strongly in sharing the advances of modern science with the public.  Between 1906 and 1925 he wrote 11 books on popular science.  His first book, Worlds in the Making, published in 1906, covered current scientific views of the universe and was one of the two best-selling books in Sweden that year.

When a smallpox epidemic hit Stockholm in 1913, Arrhenius became involved in the effort to vaccinate the population.  To counter vaccination opponents, he published a well-documented book on the disease.  The book cited the case of Prussia where Bismarck had instituted a vaccination program in 1874, resulting in fatality levels significantly lower than in the rest of Europe.

Nobel Prize winner Hans von Euler, a member of Arrhenius’ research team at Stockholm Hogskola had this to say about his mentor:

“Above all, it was his ability to grasp the great problems and confine himself to their essentials in treating them that gave his versatile scientific work an individual and brilliant character… His solid intelligence made him unprejudiced even in questions which lay outside his field of knowledge.  As a man he was a good-hearted, integrated personality who kept his balance under all circumstances.”


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