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. 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,