Arrhenius: From Ionic Theory to the Greenhouse Effect

Arrhenius: From Ionic Theory to the Greenhouse Effect

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Crawford, Elisabeth.

Svante Arrhenius (1859–1927) left his mark on three fields that have become important in twentieth-century science: physical chemistry (through his theory of ionic dissociation), climatology (through his model of the magnitude of the greenhouse effect on global warming), and immunochemistry (through his ideas concerning the chemical reactions of serum therapy). He exerted a strong influence on the selection of laureates for the early Nobel prizes in science and made popular science a new art form with Worlds in the Making; his widely read book on cosmic physics and cosmology. Students of chemistry know him through the Arrhenius equation which describes the temperature dependence of the rate constants of chemical reactions.

In his scientific career, Arrhenius crossed the boundaries between disciplines, particularly physics and chemistry, as well as those between countries. Starting out in his native Sweden, he moved to the German-speaking scientific world in the 1880s. His theory of electrolytic dissociation formulated in 1887 made him one of the pioneers of the new physical chemistry. Returning to Sweden in the 1890s, he used his base as professor of physics at the University of Stockholm, and later director of the Nobel Institute for Physical Chemistry, to build an international network that covered Europe, Russia, and North America.

Arrhenius's richly satisfying scientific life, described in colorful detail in Arrhenius: From Ionic Theory to the Greenhouse Effect, throws light on major themes of interest to both scientists and historians of science. Among these themes are: organization and styles in scientific work; competition and controversy in scientific practice; choice of research problems; creativity; and the development of new interdisciplinary fields.

" . . . Crawford has written an exceedingly readable biography, despite the array of technical materials that form the core of the book. Instead of describing the content of each of her subject’s scientific works as a whole, in the manner of conventional intellectual histories, Crawford summarizes the major objectives of the work and then cross-references it to the works and opinions of other scientists, thus placing it in the nexus of the scientific community . . . This technique could serve as a powerful tool for the historiography of twentieth-century sciences in which one cannot reasonably deal with the ‘content’ of the science.” —Isis

“This biography is a major contribution to the literature of the history of science. Its total value is, however, much broader. There is fascinating reading about a remarkable man and his accomplishments. I highly recommend Crawford’s latest book not only to the historian but also to any reader who enjoys a well-told story.” —Chemical Heritage

“ . . . a book that accomplishes the difficult task of combining a lucid treatment of scientific ideas and a sensitive reconstruction of their historical circumstances. Crawford is a sociologist whom historians would gladly claim as one of their own.” —SCIENCE

“ . . . brings home the message that scientists are human beings who may possess sometimes profound insight into the complex processes of nature but also many shortcomings which, after all, are part of human nature.” —Physics Today

“ . . . reveals the diversity of Arrhenius’s contributions to science but also opens a window on the international scientific community of a century ago. Her book does more than fill a biographical gap.” —Nature

“ . . . Elisabeth Crawford is to be congratulated on a tour de force of scholarly writing, in the course of which she has coped extremely well with a problem she pointed out in the preface, that of needing to explain scientific concepts to the uninitiated as well as to scientists not familiar with all the fields embraced by Arrhenius . . . The book is highly recommended.” —World Meteorological Organization Bulletin

“ . . . Crawford’s treatment is thorough, nuanced, and well documented. Recommended for upper-division undergraduates through professionals in chemistry, physics, and the history of science.” —CHOICE