Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The Under-appreciated Walther Nernst, and 100 Years of Solvay

One of the most important but under-appreciated Heroes of Physics was Walther Nernst, the Physical Chemist who won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1920.

What Nerst did that was so amazing is that he started the famous Solvay conferences, beginning in 1911, that brought together the finest minds of the day to discuss, and advance, Physics.

The explanation in this regard is explained from a passage in Robert P. Crease's "The Great Equations", which I strongly recommend. It concludes with Nernst's Wikipedia entry:

The journey taken by the scientific community from Planck's introduction of the quantum to Schrodinger's assertion of it's universal presence took barely a quarter-century.

When Planck introduced the idea in 1900, it was a tiny speck on the horizon. He used it to make classical theory work for black body radiation. The theory worked if we say that whatever absorbed and emits light (which he treated as "Resonators") does so selectively -- only in integer multiples of a certain amount of energy. many scientists saw this as a fudge, as problem avoidance rather than real science, and assumed that eventually they could discard the idea and it would drop back off the horizon.

But in 1905, in a paper on the photoelectric effect, Einstein extended the idea. The quantum is not due to the selectivity of the resonators, he proposed, but to the fact that light itself is "grainy." By decade's end, the quantum had shown up in several branches of physics. Many who had dismissed it now took notice.

In 1911, a landmark step was taken by Walther Nernst, a Prussian physical chemist who initially (like others) had dismissed quantum theory as the offspring of a "grotesque" formula, but who had used the theory to address what Thomson had called "Cloud No. 2," or the application of classical molecular theory of heat to experimental results involving low-temperature solids, gases, and metals. Nernst declared that, in the hands of Planck and Einstein (and, he should have mentioned, his own), the theory had proven "so fruitful" that "it is the duty of science to take it seriously and to subject it to careful investigations." He organized a conference of leading scientists to do so, holding it in Brussels with the support of a wealthy Belgium industrial named Ernest Solvay.

The conference, a milestone event, signaled that the quantum -- the idea of a fundamental graininess to light and all other forms of energy -- was in science to stay.

It was one of those events whose significance was immediately clear. Participants communicated the excitement to others who had not attended. Nobel laureate Ernest Rutherford, returning to Cambridge, England, described the discussions in "vivid" terms to a spellbound, 27-yr-old Danish newcomer to his lab named Niels Bohr. In Paris, Henri Poincare wrote that the quantum hypothesis appeared to involve "The greatest and most radical revolution in natural philosophy since the time of Newton." Many scientists who were not present at the meeting caught its spirit from the proceedings. One was a 19-year-old Sorbonne student named Louis De Broglie, a recent convert to physics from an intended civil service career. De Broglie later wrote that the proceedings convinced him to devote "all my energies" to quantum theory.

Walther Hermann Nernst (25 June 1864 – 18 November 1941) was a German physical chemist and physicist who is known for his theories behind the calculation of chemical affinity as embodied in the third law of thermodynamics, for which he won the 1920 Nobel Prize in chemistry. Nernst helped establish the modern field of physical chemistry and contributed to electrochemistrythermodynamicssolid state chemistry and photochemistry. He is also known for developing the Nernst equation.


Early years

Nernst was born in Briesen in West Prussia (now WąbrzeźnoPoland) as son of Gustav Nernst, who was a district judge. Nernst went to elementary school atGraudentz. He studied physics and mathematics at the universities of ZürichBerlinGraz and Wuerzburg, where he graduated in 1887.


After some work at Leipzig, he founded the Institute of Physical Chemistry and Electrochemistry at Göttingen. Nernst invented, in 1897 an electric lamp, using an incandescent ceramic rod. His invention, known as the Nernst lamp, was the successor to the carbon lamp and the precursor to the incandescent lamp. Nernst researched osmotic pressure and electrochemistry. In 1905, he established what he referred to as his "New Heat Theorem", later known as the Third law of thermodynamics (which describes the behavior of matter as temperatures approach absolute zero). This is the work for which he is best remembered, as it provided a means of determining free energies (and therefore equilibrium points) of chemical reactions from heat measurements. Theodore Richards claimed Nernst had stolen the idea from him, but Nernst is almost universally credited with the discovery.[1]
In 1911, with Max Planck, he is the main organizer of the first Solvay Conference in Brussels.
In 1920, he received the Nobel Prize in chemistry in recognition of his work in thermochemistry. In 1924, he became director of the Institute of Physical Chemistry at Berlin, a position from which he retired in 1933. Nernst went on to work in electroacoustics and astrophysics.
Nernst developed an electric piano, the "Neo-Bechstein-Flügel" in 1930 in association with the Bechstein and Siemens companies, replacing the sounding boardwith radio amplifiers. The piano used electromagnetic pickups to produce electronically modified and amplified sound in the same way as an electric guitar.
His device, a solid-body radiator with a filament of rare-earth oxides, that would later be known as the Nernst glower, is important in the field of infrared spectroscopy. Continuous ohmic heating of the filament results in conduction. The glower operates best in wavelengths from two to 14 micrometers.

Personal life

Nernst married in 1892 to Emma Lohmeyer with whom he had two sons and three daughters. He was a vocal critic of Adolf Hitler and Nazism, and two daughters married Jewish men. In 1933, the rise of Nazism led to the end of Nernst's career as a scientist. Nernst died in 1941 and is buried near Max Planck in Göttingen, Germany.


  • Walther Nernst, "Reasoning of theoretical chemistry: Nine papers (1889-1921)" (Ger., Begründung der Theoretischen Chemie : Neun Abhandlungen, 1889–1921). Frankfurt am Main : Verlag Harri Deutsch, c. 2003. ISBN 3817132905
  • Walther Nernst, "The theoretical and experimental bases of the New Heat Theorem" (Ger., Die theoretischen und experimentellen Grundlagen des neuen Wärmesatzes). Halle [Ger.] W. Knapp, 1918 [tr. 1926]. [ed., this is a list of thermodynamical papers from the physico-chemical institute of the University of Berlin (1906–1916); Translation available by Guy Barr LCCN 27-2575
  • Walther Nernst, "Theoretical chemistry from the standpoint of Avogadro's law and thermodynamics" (Ger., Theoretische Chemie vom Standpunkte der Avogadroschen Regel und der Thermodynamik). Stuttgart, F. Enke, 1893 [5th edition, 1923]. LCCN po28-417

See also


  1. ^ Coffey, Patrick (2008). Cathedrals of Science: The Personalities and Rivalries That Made Modern Chemistry. Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 78–81.ISBN 0195321340.

Further reading

  • Barkan, Diana Kormos (1998). Walther Nernst and the Transition to Modern Physical Science. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 052144456X.
  • Bartel, Hans-Georg; Huebener, Rudolf P. (2007). Walther Nernst. Pioneer of Physics and of Chemistry. Singapore: World ScientificISBN 9812565604.
  • Mendelssohn, Kurt Alfred Georg (1973). The World of Walther Nernst: The Rise and Fall of German Science. London: Macmillan. ISBN 0333148959.

External links

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