was born at Vik, 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.
later life, Arrhenius enjoyed using masses of data to discover
mathematical relationships and laws. At age 8, he entered the
local cathedral school, starting in the fifth grade, distinguishing
himself in physics and mathematics, and graduating as the youngest
and ablest student in 1876.
the University of Uppsala, he was unsatisfied with the chief instructor
of physics and the only faculty member who could have supervised
him in chemistry, so he left to study at the Physical Institute
of the Swedish Academy of Sciences in Stockholm under the physicist
Erik Edlund in 1881. His work specialized 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.
It did not impress the professors, and he received the lowest
possible passing grade. Later this very work would earn him the
Nobel Prize in Chemistry.
were fifty-six theses put forth in the 1884 dissertation, and
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.
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 the case, but modifications (by Peter J.
W. Debye and Erich Hückel) were found necessary to account
for the behavior of strong electrolytes.
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 gotten an appointment
next received a travel grant 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.
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. 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.
was married twice, to Sofia Rudbeck, (who bore him one son) from
1894 to 1896, and to Maria Johansson (who bore him two daughters
and a son), from 1905 onward.
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.
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.
He also turned his attention to geology (the origin of ice ages),
astronomy, 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.
thought life might have been carried from planet to planet by
the transport of spores, the theory now known as panspermia. He
thought of the idea of a universal language, proposing a modification
of the English language.
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.
his last years he wrote both textbooks and popular books, trying
to emphasize the need for further work on the topics he discussed.
September, 1927, he came down with an attack of acute intestinal
catarrh, died on October 2, and was buried in Uppsala.
Arrhenius developed a theory to explain the ice ages, and first
formulated the idea that changes in the levels of carbon dioxide
in the atmosphere could substantially alter the surface temperature
through the greenhouse effect ("On the Influence of Carbonic
Acid in the Air Upon the Temperature of the Ground", Philosophical
Magazine 1896(41): 237-76). He was influenced by the work of others,
including Joseph Fourier's argument that the earth's atmosphere
acted like the glass of a hot-house. 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 vapour. Using the just published
Stefan's law he formulated his greenhouse law. In it's original
form, Arrhenius' greenhouse law reads as follows:
the quantity of carbonic acid increases in geometric progression,
the augmentation of the temperature will increase nearly in arithmetic
progression. Which is still valid in the simplified expression
by Myhre et al(1998).
Arrhenius' high absorption values for CO2, however, 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 the 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. 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.
estimated that a doubling of CO2 would cause a temperature rise
of 5 degrees Celsius , recent values from IPCC place this value
(the Climate sensitivity) at between 1.5 and 4.5 degrees. What
is remarkable is that through a combination of skill and luck
he came within a factor of two of the IPCC estimate. His calculations
were important only in a qualitative way in showing that this
was a significant effect. Arrhenius expected CO2 levels to rise
at a rate given by emissions at his time. Since then, industrial
carbon dioxide levels have risen at a much faster rate: Arrhenius
expected CO2 doubling to take about 3000 years; it is now generally
expected to take about a century.