The path that led Dr. Alyea to Arrhenius' lab began in 1920 when he entered Princeton at the age of 15. His work and studies were delayed when he contracted polio at the age of 19; however, he feels that the year he spent in bed as a result of his illness was a time of great inner reflection and that he emerged with a strong commitment to accomplish something with his life that would contribute to the good of humanity.
After Dr. Alyea graduated from Princeton he was awarded a grant to study with Arrhenius, and he left for Sweden. At the time of Dr. Alyea's arrival, Svante Arrhenius was already 66 years old, and the bulk of his research had been completed. What had been a bustling lab in earlier years now supported only a few graduate students. Dr. Alyea felt this atmosphere was perfect for him; he received the mentoring that he needed to thrive. Although Dr. Alyea worked directly under Beckstrum, Arrhenius' assistant, he recalls how Svante Arrhenius came in to the lab at least twice every day to ask how the work was going and what Alyea planned to do that day.
Dr. Alyea was working on the idea of a free atom, a concept not readily accepted at that time. Svante Arrhenius seemed very interested in the idea, possibly because he may have thought of it as an extension of his own work on ions. Often Arrhenius would offer suggestions, but he did not insist on a specific research plan. Dr Alyea characterized Arrhenius as a man who "spread joy in the lab".
Dr. Arrhenius related the following story of his youth to Hubert Alyea one day when he visited the lab. He said that he was working in a lab at the time, and one of the chemists gave him a vial of liquid to dispose of. The vial contained mercaptans, an extremely smelly substance, but at the time the young Svante Arrhenius was not aware of this. Having forgotten to dispose of the liquid properly while still at the lab, Arrhenius tossed the vial beside the road as he was riding his bicycle home. The cap of the vial came loose, and the mercaptans diffused rapidly causing a wide area of town to smell. A committee was appointed to investigate the problem, and after several weeks they concluded that unusual meteorological conditions had caused the mercaptans to form. They also concluded it was highly unlikely that this would ever happen again. Arrhenius was very sure that it would never happen again!
Although there were only a few graduate students working under Dr. Arrhenius at this time, there was a constant flow of visitors from around the world, and Dr. Arrhenius seemed to enjoy the attention as well as their company. Often large groups were invited to dinner. One memorable dinner party was interrupted by Arrhenius when the aurora borealis began that evening. Arrhenius required everyone to accompany him outside as he explained to them the cause of this beautiful phenomenon. By the time he allowed his guests to return to dinner, all of the food was cold.
Dr. Alyea said that the aurora borealis was not the only thing about the sky that held Arrhenius' attention. He believed that life on earth was brought here by spores carried through space from other planets by radiation. He believed that likewise these spores could have carried life to many planets resulting in life throughout the universe.
Dr. Svante August Arrhenius won the Nobel Prize for his work in 1903, and Dr. Alyea's favorite story about Dr. Arrhenius as director of the Nobel Institute was about the 1926 Nobel Awards Dinner. Dr. Arrhenius took the podium to honor the guests, and as he said a few words about each of the famous men present he offered a toast with the alcoholic beverage of that man's choice. (Because this was during prohibition in the United States, Dr. Arrhenius toasted the American with water!) By the end of this series of toasts, Dr. Arrhenius appeared to be the only one of the distinguished guests still sober.
In closing this inspirational interview, Dr. Hubert Alyea offered the following classification of teachers. A good teacher is one who explains a concept; a better teacher is one who asks questions about the concept; and the best teacher is one who demonstrates the concept then solicits the questions from the students. Dr. Alyea has been a wonderful role model for all teachers, and he has certainly been among the best of teachers.
While attending the University of Uppsala studying under E. Edluld he worked on the properties of electricity passing through solutions. As a doctoral candidate he knew of Faraday's "ions", and it seemed to him that the puzzles involved in his conductivity studies could best be explained if one assumed that molecules could break up into electrically charged fragments called "ions". For his PhD thesis in 1884 he presented his "ionic theory", but it turned out to be a bit too revolutionary for his examiners' taste. He just barely passed with a fourth class rank, "not without merit". (See the next section of this paper, Arrhenius' Dissertation, for a more complete discussion of the Thesis, its rejection, and final acceptance.).
Arrhenius obtained a travel grant and worked with Ostwald and Van't Hoff during which time his reputation increased as he clarified the ionic theory to his fellow chemists. In the late 1890's when electrically charged subatomic particles were discovered, Arrhenius' ionic theory suddenly made sense, and in 1903 he received the Nobel Prize in chemistry for it.
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. It is interesting that neither Bronsted nor Lewis received the Nobel Prize for continuing the work on the theory of acids and bases and for expanding the definition of these substances. It is noted that Arrhenius never did accept the Bronsted or Lewis definitions of acids and bases.
Arrhenius studied reaction rates as a function of temperature, and in 1889 he introduced the concept of activation energy as the critical energy that chemicals need to react. He also pointed out the existence of a "greenhouse effect" in which small changes in the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere could considerably alter the average temperature of a planet.
In 1908 Arrhenius advanced a new concept that had less success but has remained interesting to scientists and science fiction readers alike. He suggested that life might have orginated through spores blown up through the atmosphere of life-bearing worlds and then driven by radiation pressure across the gulfs of space to fall on hospitable but as yet sterile worlds.
He died in Stockholm on October 2, 1927.
At the age of 24, Arrhenius had determined the conductivity of many electrolytes and planned his dissertation proposal. His data may have taken the following format:
Arrhenius accepted a chemistry position at Technical High School of Stockholm. From this position he sent copies of his research to chemists in many of the laboratories of Europe. The older chemists formally and quietly rejected his thesis; they were firmly convinced that molecules could not break up and could not carry an electric charge. They, like the dissertation committee, could not imagine sodium, a metal that violently reacts with water, and chlorine, a gas with toxic properties, existing as independent tragments after sodium chloride dissolved in water.
By 1887 Arrhenius had worked out the language of his model with statements like "In all probability all electrolytes are completely dissociated at extreme dilutions". He could explain weak and strong acids by the concentration of the ions, known as percent dissociation today.
Fortunately a few of the younger men in the new field of physical chemistry were intrigued by the notion of ions and by Arrhenius' reasoning. His model gained acceptance as the network of young chemists started to explain their results in terms of ions and dissociation. Van't Hoff is one example; he explained the higher osmotic pressure than predicted for electrolytes.
Data continued to support the concept that ionic and polar covalently bonded substances dissociate in water. Some substances dissociate to a greater extent. These statements explain the colligitave properties and differences in pH of similar acid concentrations.
Bronsted, Lowry, Lewis and others have developed a more general model of acids and bases for non-water solvent systems. We also must be prepared to accept the next model for the dissociation of substances.
Snelders H. A. M., "Arrhenius, Svante August", Charles C. Gillispie, editor, Dictionary of Scientific Biography, Volume 1, Charles Scribner's Sons, New York, New York, pp296 - 302 - Great seven page chronology of Arrhenius and a description of findings in his dissertation on ionic theory.
Jaffe, Bernard, Crucibles: The Story of Chemistry, Simon and Schuster, Inc., New York,1930, pp 219 - 241. - This is the best 22 page resource for the human side to Arrhenius' personality and for the personal conflicts of accepting a revolutionary idea.
Kendall, James, Great Discoveries by Young Chemists, Thomas Crowell Co, New York, 1935, pp 124 -138.- Chapter V is the chemistry of solutions which shows the supportive relationchip of Van't Hoff, Ostwald and others.
Shakhashiri, Bassam, Demonstrations in Chemistry, Volume 3,University of Wisconsin, 1989, pp 3 - 26. - Within the framework of acid/base concept development, Arrhenius' data on conductivity is simulated with more modern measurements. The table of data, page 8, lists the conductivities of 12 compounds at dilutions of 0.05 M to O.001 M. Demonstration 8.21 shows how to build a light bulb conductivity tester with two sets of electrodes for serial comparison.