Svante Arrhenius - Sweden's first Nobel Laureate.

At school, Arrhenius’ teacher thought he could be more active, and at Uppsala University he was subject to so much criticism by the professors that he left the university. A career that in some ways started a bit shaky resulted in a Nobel Prize in Chemistry, Sweden’s first.

Svante Arrhenius was born in 1859 on Vik’s estate outside Uppsala though only a year later the family moved to Uppsala. As a young man, Svante Arrhenius showed a natural aptitude for mathematics. In his autobiography, he describes it like this: “The numbers stood for my inner vision as were they written on a chalkboard”. Despite his aptitude for mathematics, he did not graduate with top marks and his teacher considered him lazy in some subjects.

Completed a Bachelor's degree in record time

In the same year he graduated, 1876, Arrhenius began his studies at Uppsala University. Unsurprisingly, the subjects he studied were mathematics, chemistry and physics. In just three semesters he became a philosophy candidate, breaking the previous record of four semesters. He then travelled to Paris, on a trip that is believed to have inspired his future research.

First contact with Stockholm

When he returned to Uppsala to write his doctoral dissertation, he chose to do so in physics. He wished to conduct research in the intersection between chemistry and physics, but this was not popular with the professors in Uppsala. Instead, it was a professor from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences who guided Arrhenius during his work on his doctoral dissertation.

Lowest grade in the defense

The theories he developed in his dissertation were first met with such skepticism, that his disputation in 1884 was approved with the lowest possible grades. A few years later, the theories were re-examined, and in 1891, Svante Arrhenius was given position as a teacher at Stockholm University College, today Stockholm University. He soon became professor of physics and later was the head of the university for seven years.

Electrolytic dissociation theory – what is it?

That Svante Arrhenius was one of the greatest natural scientists of his time is not debated. Through his electrolytic dissociation theory, a variety of enigmatic chemical and physical phenomena could be explained and described more simply and more uniformly. Electrolytic dissociation refers to the way compounds decompose in electrically charged ions, for example when ordinary saline dissolves in free sodium and chlorine ions. Thus, solutions can act as electrolytes and conduct electrical current. It was for that theory that Arrhenius became the first Swede to receive the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1903. Although his theory has been modified during the 20th century, it still represents one of the great scientific advances in chemistry.

The Arrhenius equation and the greenhouse effect

Another of Svante Arrhenius’ most significant contributions is the so-called Arrhenius equation. It formulates the relationship between how fast a reaction occurs and the energy that must be supplied for it to take place. This relationship is of fundamental importance for understanding how chemical reactions actually take place.

Svante Arrhenius is also widely known throughout the world for his work in earth sciences, and especially with regard to understanding the impact of carbon dioxide on the Earth’s climate (the “greenhouse effect”). In 1896, he published a groundbreaking study on this subject in which he made a quantitative estimate of how much the Earth’s average temperature would increase if the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere doubled – or reduced if the amount were halved. The reason he made this study was to see if variations in carbon dioxide could be a cause of the variation in temperature between ice ages and warmer periods, such as the one we are experiencing today.

He soon came to realize that this knowledge could also be used to calculate the consequences of our burning of fossil fuels. Today, his contribution to the understanding of the greenhouse effect and the impact of carbon dioxide on the climate is more topical than ever, and his pioneering work from 1896 is frequently cited.

Svante Arrhenius died in 1927, and today his name lives on in the Arrhenius Laboratories which house several of the natural science departments at Stockholm University.