Svante Arrhenius

From New World Encyclopedia

Svante Arrhenius

Svante August Arrhenius

February 19, 1859
Vik, Sweden

Died October 2, 1927

Stockholm, Sweden

Residence Flag of Sweden.svg Sweden
Nationality Flag of Sweden.svg Swedish
Field Physical chemist
Institutions Royal Institute of Technology
Alma mater University of Uppsala
University of Stockholm
Academic advisor  Eric Edlund
Notable students  Oskar Benjamin Klein
Known for Arrhenius equation
Notable prizes Nobel.svg Nobel Prize for Chemistry (1903)

Svante August Arrhenius (February 19, 1859 – October 2, 1927) was a Swedish chemist and one of the founders of the science of physical chemistry. He determined that reactions in living organisms and in the test tube follow the same laws. In addition, he contributed to the fields of geology, astronomy, and astrophysics. He thought of the idea of a universal language, proposing modifications to the English language. The Arrhenius equation and the lunar crater Arrhenius are named after him. He received the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1903, becoming the first Swedish Nobel laureate. His work on greenhouse gases has led him to be called by some the father of the science of climate change.


Arrhenius was born at Vik, in the Kalmar district near Uppsala, Sweden, the son of Svante Gustav and Carolina Thunberg Arrhenius. His father had been a land surveyor for Uppsala University, moving up to a supervisory position. At the age of three, Arrhenius taught himself to read, despite his parents' wishes, and by watching his father's addition of numbers in his account books, became an arithmetical prodigy.

In later life, Arrhenius enjoyed using masses of data to discover mathematical relationships and laws. At age eight, he entered Cathedral School in Uppsala, starting in the fifth grade, distinguishing himself in physics and mathematics, and graduating as the youngest and most able student in 1876.

Groundbreaking dissertation

At the University of Uppsala, he was unsatisfied with the chief instructor of physics, Robert Thalen, whose interests lay in spectral analysis, a topic Arrhenius did not wish to pursue. Since Thalen was only faculty member who could have supervised him in chemistry at Uppsala, he was permitted to study at the Physical Institute of the Swedish Academy of Sciences in Stockholm under the physicist Erik Edlund in 1881. His work focused on the conductivities of electrolytes. In 1884, based on this work, he submitted a 150-page dissertation on electrolytic conductivity to Uppsala for the doctorate. His viewpoint did not impress the professors, as it stood against the common wisdom of the time, and he received the lowest possible passing grade. Such a low grade did not qualify him to teach at the university level. Later this very work would earn him the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

Of the many theses put forth in the 1884 dissertation, most would still be accepted today unchanged or with minor modifications. The most important idea in the dissertation was his explanation of the fact that neither pure salts nor pure water is a conductor, but solutions of salts in water are.

Arrhenius' explanation was that in forming a solution, the salt dissociates into charged particles (which Michael Faraday had given the name ions many years earlier). Faraday's belief had been that ions were produced in the process of electrolysis; Arrhenius proposed that, even in the absence of an electric current, solutions of salts contained ions.

He thus proposed that chemical reactions in solution were reactions between ions. For weak electrolytes this is still believed to be the case, but modifications (by Peter J. W. Debye and Erich Hückel) were found necessary to account for the behavior of strong electrolytes.

In an extension of his ionic theory, Arrhenius proposed definitions for acids and bases. He believed that acids were substances which produce hydrogen ions in solution and that bases were substances which produce hydroxide ions in solution.

The dissertation was not very impressive to the professors at Uppsala, but Arrhenius sent it to a number of scientists in Europe who were developing the new science of physical chemistry, such as Rudolf Clausius, Wilhelm Ostwald, and J. H. van 't Hoff.

They were far more impressed, and Ostwald even came to Uppsala to persuade Arrhenius to join his research team. Arrhenius declined, however, as he preferred to stay in Sweden for a while (his father was very ill and would die in 1885) and had received an appointment at Uppsala.

Middle period

Arrhenius received a travel grant in 1885 from the Swedish Academy of Sciences, which enabled him to study with Ostwald in Riga (now in Latvia), with Friedrich Kohlrausch in Würzburg, Germany, with Ludwig Boltzmann in Graz, Austria, and with van't Hoff in Amsterdam.

In 1889, Arrhenius explained the fact that most reactions require added heat energy to proceed by formulating the concept of activation energy, an energy barrier that must be overcome before two molecules will react. The Arrhenius equation gives the quantitative basis of the relationship between the activation energy and the rate at which a reaction proceeds. This explains the changes in reaction rates as the temperature increases.

In 1891 he became a lecturer at Stockholms Högskola (now Stockholm University), being promoted to professor of physics (with much opposition) in 1895, and rector in 1896.

He was married twice. First to Sofia Rudbeck, a former pupil and assistant, who bore him one son, Olof Wilhelm. The marriage lasted only two years from 1894 to 1896, ending in divorce. In 1905, he married Maria Johansson, who bore him two daughters, Ester and Anna-Lisa, and a son, Sven.

In 1901, Arrhenius was elected to the Swedish Academy of Sciences, against strong opposition. In 1903, he became the first Swede to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

In 1905, upon the founding of the Nobel Institute for Physical Research at Stockholm, he was appointed rector of the institute, the position where he remained until retirement in 1927.

Later years

Eventually, Arrhenius' theories became generally accepted and he turned to other scientific topics. In 1902 he began to investigate physiological problems in terms of chemical theory. He determined that reactions in living organisms and in the test tube followed the same laws. In 1904, he delivered at the University of California a course of lectures, the object of which was to illustrate the application of the methods of physical chemistry to the study of the theory of toxins and antitoxins, and which were published in 1907 under the title Immunochemistry.

He also turned his attention to geology (the origin of ice ages), astronomy, physical cosmology, and astrophysics, accounting for the birth of the solar system by interstellar collision. He considered radiation pressure as accounting for comets, the solar corona, the aurora borealis, and zodiacal light.

He developed a theory for the origin of life on earth, known as panspermia, in which life in the form of spores is transported through interstellar space by light pressure. He even postulated that life on earth may have come from Venus, connecting the survival of some forms of bacteria at high temperatures with conditions on that planet. The theme of panspermia was later revived by astrophysicist Fred Hoyle in the last decades of the twentieth century.

He thought of the idea of a universal language, proposing a modification of the English language.

In his last years he wrote both textbooks and popular books, trying to emphasize the need for further work on the topics he discussed. These included Quantitative Laws in Biological Chemistry (1915), Worlds in the Making: The Evolution of the Universe (1906), and The Destinies of the Stars (1915).

In September 1927, he came down with an attack of acute intestinal catarrh. He died on October 2 and was buried in Uppsala.

Greenhouse effect as cause for ice ages

Did you know?
Svante Arrhenius' work on greenhouse gases has led to him beeing called the father of the science of climate change

Svante 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.[1] In this work, he built upon the prior work of other famous scientists, including Joseph Fourier, John Tyndall, and Claude Pouillet.

Using the just published Stefan Boltzmann law he formulated his greenhouse law.

In its original form, Arrhenius' greenhouse law reads as follows:

If the quantity of carbonic acid increases in geometric progression, the augmentation of the temperature will increase nearly in arithmetic progression.

This postulate is still considered valid.

Arrhenius used the infrared observations of the moon by Frank Washington Very and Samuel Pierpont Langley at the Allegheny Observatory in Pittsburgh to calculate the absorption of CO2 and water vapor. These calculations led him to conclude that human-caused CO2 emissions, from fossil-fuel burning and other combustion processes, are large enough to cause global warming. In his calculation Arrhenius included the feedback from changes in water vapor as well as latitudinal effects, but he omitted clouds, convection of heat upward in the atmosphere, and other essential factors. His work is currently seen less as an accurate quantification of global warming than as the first demonstration that increases in atmospheric CO2 will cause global warming, everything else being equal.

Arrhenius' high absorption values for CO2 met criticism by Knut Ångström in 1900, who published the first modern infrared spectrum of CO2 with two absorption bands. Arrhenius replied strongly in 1901 (Annalen der Physik), dismissing the critique altogether. He touched the subject briefly in a technical book titled Lehrbuch der kosmischen Physik (1903). He later wrote Världarnas utveckling (1906), German translation: Das Werden der Welten (1907), English translation: Worlds in the Making (1908) directed at a general audience, where he suggested that the human emission of CO2 would be strong enough to prevent the world from entering a new ice age, and that a warmer earth would be needed to feed the rapidly increasing population. Arrhenius clearly believed that a warmer world would be a positive change. From that, the hot-house theory gained more attention. Nevertheless, until about 1960, most scientists dismissed the hot-house/greenhouse effect as implausible for the cause of ice ages as Milutin Milankovitch had presented a mechanism using orbital changes of the earth (Milankovitch cycles), which has proven to be a powerful predictor of most of the millions of past climate changes. Nowadays, the accepted explanation is that orbital forcing sets the timing for ice ages with CO2 acting as an essential amplifying feedback.

Arrhenius estimated that a doubling of CO2 would cause a temperature rise of four to six degrees Celsius or seven to 11 degrees Fahrenheit. Arrhenius expected CO2 doubling to take about 3000 years. Since Arrhenius' time, however, industrial carbon dioxide levels have risen at a much faster rate. Doubling of carbon dioxide concentrations is now predicted to take about a century. His work on greenhouse gases has led Arrhenius to be called the father of climate change science.[2]


  • Davy Medal of the Royal Society (1902)
  • Nobel Prize in chemistry (1903)
  • Willard Gibbs Medal of the Chicago section of the American chemical Society (1911)
  • Faraday Medal of the British Chemical Society (1914)
  • Honorary member, Deutsche Chemische Gesellschaft
  • Foreign member, Royal Society of London

Research publications

  • Svante Arrhenius, 1884, "Recherches sur la conductivité galvanique des électrolytes," doctoral dissertation, Stockholm, Royal publishing house, P.A. Norstedt & söner, 89 pages.
  • Svante Arrhenius, 1896a, "Ueber den Einfluss des Atmosphärischen Kohlensäurengehalts auf die Temperatur der Erdoberfläche," in the Proceedings of the Royal Swedish Academy of Science, Stockholm 1896, Volume 22, I N. 1, pages 1–101.
  • Svante Arrhenius, 1896b, "On the Influence of Carbonic Acid in the Air upon the Temperature of the Ground," London, Edinburgh, and Dublin Philosophical Magazine and Journal of Science (fifth series), April 1896. vol 41, pages 237–275.
  • Svante Arrhenius, 1901a, "Ueber die Wärmeabsorption durch Kohlensäure," Annalen der Physik, Vol 4, 1901, pages 690–705.
  • Svante Arrhenius, 1901b, "Über Die Wärmeabsorption Durch Kohlensäure Und Ihren Einfluss Auf Die Temperatur Der Erdoberfläche," Abstract of the proceedings of the Royal Academy of Science, 58, 25–58.
  • Svante Arrhenius, 1903, Lehrbuch der Kosmischen Physik, Vol I and II, S. Hirschel publishing house, Leipzig, 1026 pages.
  • Svante Arrhenius, 1908, Das Werden der Welten, Academic Publishing House, Leipzig, 208 pages.


  1. Svante Arrhenius, On the Influence of Carbonic Acid in the Air Upon the Temperature of the Ground Philosophical Magazine and Journal of Science 5(41) (1896): 237-276. Retrieved March 9, 2022.
  2. Ian Sample, The father of climate change The Guardian, June 30, 2005. Retrieved March 9, 2022.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Crawford, Elisabeth T. Arrhenius: From Ionic Theory to the Greenhouse Effect. Uppsala Studies in History of Science, 23. Canton, MA: Science History Publications, 1996. ISBN 0881351660
  • Ferguson, Pamela. World Book's Biographical Encyclopedia of Scientists. 8th ed. Chicago: World Book, 2002. ISBN 0716676001
  • Gillispie, Charles Coulston. Dictionary of Scientific Biography. New York: Scribner, 1975. ISBN 0684101211

External links

All links retrieved February 26, 2023.


New World Encyclopedia writers and editors rewrote and completed the Wikipedia article in accordance with New World Encyclopedia standards. This article abides by terms of the Creative Commons CC-by-sa 3.0 License (CC-by-sa), which may be used and disseminated with proper attribution. Credit is due under the terms of this license that can reference both the New World Encyclopedia contributors and the selfless volunteer contributors of the Wikimedia Foundation. To cite this article click here for a list of acceptable citing formats.The history of earlier contributions by wikipedians is accessible to researchers here:

The history of this article since it was imported to New World Encyclopedia:

Note: Some restrictions may apply to use of individual images which are separately licensed.