February 19, 1859 (a Saturday)

Svante Arrhenius

On this date, physical chemist and Nobel Prize winner Svante August Arrhenius was born at Vik (also spelled Wik or Wijk), near Uppsala, Sweden. He studied at Uppsala University, then under a professor in Stockholm. His 1884 thesis, on the galvanic conductivity of electrolyes, won him the first docentship at Uppsala in physical chemistry, a new branch of science. Arrhenius was also awarded a traveling fellowship and worked with scientists throughout Europe. Arrhenius was appointed professor of physics in 1895 at Stockholm’s Hogskola. He won the Nobel Prize for chemical research in 1903, for originating the theory of electrolytic dissociation, or ionization. He also investigated osmosis, toxins and antitoxins. He was offered the position of chief of the Nobel Institute for Physical Chemistry, founded just for him.

Arrhenius wrote classic textbooks in his field, which were translated into many languages, and also popularized science for the general public, with such books as The Destinies of the Stars (1919). His wide interests in science are exemplified by his contributions to the understanding of such phenomena as the aurora borealis, or Northern Lights.  Arrhenius developed a theory to explain the ice ages, and first speculated that changes in the levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere could substantially alter the surface temperature through the greenhouse effect.

Arrhenius also was the first to present a detailed scientific hypothesis of panspermia.  In this, he argued that life arrived on Earth in the form of microscopic spores that had been propelled across interstellar space by the radiation pressure of star light.   His seminal 1903 paper on the subject was in response to “the failure of repeated attempts made by eminent biologists to discover a single case of spontaneous generation of life”.  In its fully-developed form, Arrhenius’s hypothesis reached a wide audience through his book Worlds in the Making (1908, first published as Varldarnas utveckling in Sweden in 1906).  Arrhenius was optimistic that, subject to the low temperatures in space, spores would be able to remain viable for very long periods.  As for the effect of solar radiation, although Arrhenius was aware of the potentially lethal effect of ultraviolet light on living cells, he insisted that “All the botanists that I have been able to consult are of the opinion that we can by no means assert with certainty that spores would be killed by the light rays in wandering through infinite space.”  His support for panspermia tied in with his fundamental belief that “all organisms in the universe are related and the process of evolution is everywhere the same.”  He thought life on other worlds might be common, though he opposed Lowell’s claims about canals on Mars.

In 1914, he was awarded the Faraday Medal of the Chemical Society. During World War I, he worked to get the release of many German and Austrian scientists who had been made prisoners of war. According to historian Joseph McCabe, Arrhenius was a “Monist.”


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