Visions of the Cosmos

Life Among the Stars

Svante Arrhenius 1859-1927       Prophet of Global Warming

Svante Arrhenius 1859-1927

Portrait of a Genius

The life of Svante Arrhenius was a spectacular success. He was in fact a genius whose name deserves to be more widely known for his extensive contributions to science. His was a mind whose broad vision enabled him to encompass the whole field of scientific thought and investigation. He was one of the most versatile scientists of his day and made significant contributions to many branches of knowledge among them electrochemistry,  physics. immunochemistry and medicine, biology, meteorology, astronomy and geology. He was also a pioneer in electrical engineering and was responsible for the installation of hydroelectric plants throughout Sweden. In his early years he was responsible for the discovery of the electrolytic dissociation of salts in solution and it is for this that he is most famous. Like many brilliant minds Arrhenius saw through the conventional ideas held by senior academics of the day and put forward revolutionary theories of his own. This upset many members of the scientific establishment His early years as a young scientist in the University of Upsala were clouded by the open opposition and jealous sarcasm of the professors and senior academics who directed his research. There were other members of the scientific establishment however who recognised his outstanding abilities and encouraged him in his work.. In the closing years of the nineteenth century his discoveries were highly controversial and the subject of ferocious arguments  in academic circles. As the years went by his achievements in many fields of science became patently obvious and even some of his early detractors came to admire him. His great contributions to the science of his day are now fully recognised in this own native country. A whole section of the University of Stockholm has been named in his honour. The Arrhenius Laboratories for Natural Sciences houses the Departments of Chemistry, Meteorology and Biophysics and most of the Biology Departments as well as the extensive libraries in Chemistry and Biology and many other facilities.


Svandte’s grandfather Gustav died at an early age. This left his father Sven and his uncle Johan to be brought up by their grandfather. Both the boys attended the University of Upsala. Johan studied Botany and became well known in botanical and agricultural circles.  Svandte’s father Sven was the younger brother and had quite a struggle in his early years. Fortunately he was an extremely hard working young man. He had a respectable but poorly paid post as a land surveyor at the University of Upsala. With his young wife Carolina and a family of two sons and a daughter to bring up he found it necessary to supplement his income. To do this he accepted the post of overseer at the ‘stately home’ of Wik on Lake Malar. Svandte, the second son, was in fact born at the Castle of Wik on 19 February 1859.  A few years later Sven improved his financial position and the family moved to Upsala where he devoted himself entirely to his university position.

Svandte was a gifted child.  He learnt to read at three years of age and showed exceptional ability in mathematics and physics. He left school at seventeen with excellent reports and entered the University of Upsala as an undergraduate.  He became a candidate for a Bachelor’s Degree in Mathematics, Physics and Chemistry in 1878. He continued his studies at Upsala for three more years. During this time he met with considerable difficulties. The chief instructor in Physics was a man by the name of Tobias Thalen (1827-1905). Thalen was openly hostile to the young Svandte and Cleve the Head of the Chemistry Department was bitingly sarcastic. Arrhenius left Upsala in 1881 and continued his training in Physics at Stockholm under E.Edlund of the Swedish Academy of Science. Edlund placed at the young man’s disposal a whole battery of apparatus and encouraged him in every way.

            In 1884 at the early age of twenty-five Arrhenius wrote his doctoral thesis on the  theory of the electrolytic dissociation of salts in solution. In this he was already laying down the ideas which were to lead to his most famous accomplishment

This dissertation was written in French. He was totally fluent in four languages. Over a period of 44 years he wrote a stream of scientific publications over an amazingly varied number of topics in German, French and English as well as in his own native Swedish. When in May 1884 he presented his dissertation the judges were Thalen and Cleve. They were very dismissive of his work. They only awarded him a “non sine laude” which meant that, although he passed his doctorate, he was not given the award of “docenti” in the university which was reserved for people who passed their dissertations with a “cum laude” recommendation.

            On the other hand Otto Petterson, the Chemistry Professor at Stockholm High School disagreed profoundly with the judgement of Thaler and Cleve. He placed on record that he regarded the work of Arrhenius to be of the highest order. There is no doubt that Svandte was deeply hurt by the attitude of the professors at Upsala. However, undeterred by their discouragement, the young man wrote to a number of eminent members of the scientific establishment namely Clausius in Bonn, Lothar Meyer in Tubingen, van’t Hoff in Amsterdam and Ostwald in Riga. From all of them he received friendly encouragement. Above all the eminent chemist Ostwald had read  Svandtes’s scientific papers and realised the importance of his work. He successfully repeated some of the experiments and after a short correspondence came especially to see him in Upsala. He was very eager to meet the young author of the dissertation and when he arrived in Upsala he was introduced to Professor Cleve. On meeting Ostwald, Cleve, began passing highly disparaging and sarcastic remarks regarding Arrhenius and his work. Cleve was shocked when Ostwald said that in fact he was most impressed with the young Svandte and believed his theories to be true. Cleve must have been even more disconcerted when Ostwald informed him that he was inviting Svandte to come with him to Riga so that they could work together on a program of physical chemistry.   Arrhenius accompanied  Ostwald to Magdeburg but before they could go on to Riga Svandte heard the sad news that his father was seriously ill. He returned to Sweden and soon after his father died.

It was not long before Arrhenius was back on his travels again. Through the influence of Edlund he received a travel grant from the Swedish Academy of 4,500 Swedish Kroner (check). He travelled widely and after the death of his father he was then able to go to Riga as planned to carry out work with Ostwald.. The last years of the 1880s must have been exciting and rewarding for the young scientist still only in his late 20s. He spent these fruitful years visiting many of the famous scientists of the day in their own universities. With his genius he directly contributed towards their work. They regarded this young man from Scandinavia with great affection and to everyone he was Svandte. The people with whom he associated were household names in the world of science. Among them were Kohlrausch in Wurzburg, Nernst and Boltzmann in Graz(Austria), Oliver Lodge in England and van’t Hoff in Amsterdam to mention only a few. He also worked again with Ostwald this time in Leipzig. Finally he returned to Sweden and worked on  Solar Radiation in 1888 with Edlund until the latter died in the August. With the sad passing of Edlund, Arrhenius applied for the vacant post in Stockholm. However Thalen who had great influence in the Stockholm Academy determined that this ‘lap-dog’ Arrhenius should not get the job and nominated Knut Angstrom. As a result of the unpleasantness neither of them got the job which went instead to a another applicant. Faced with this disappointment Svandte, who was very well received in German scientific circles, left his native Sweden once again and returned to Germany. He made visits back to Upsala to deliver lectures and found that the students in fact preferred his teaching methods to some of the older lecturers at the University. He made applications for posts in Upsala but was rejected. For a while he returned to Germany. Finally however in 1891 Arrhenius took up a post at The Technological University of Stockholm which was converted to a Professorship of Physics in 1895.

In 1894 he married Sophia von Rudbeck. one of his best students who was also the daughter of an old friend of his father’s. In the following year a son Olof was born. The marriage was however not a happy one and soon after they were divorced.

He occupied the Physics Chair at Stockholm until 1905 when he was appointed Head of the Physical Chemistry Division of the Nobel Institute of the Academy of Sciences. By this time Arrhenius had been awarded many honours. He received the Davy Medal from The Royal Society in London in 1902. The following year he attained the most prestigious award of all - The Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

Even in his early years when he was deeply involved in his work on electrolytes in solution Svandte already showed a great interest in astronomical and meteorological matters One of his first public lectures, at the early age of 22, was on the theme of the relationship between sunspots and terrestrial phenomena. Two years later in one of his earliest papers he published an article on ball-lightning.      

Towards the end of the nineteenth century Arrhenius turned his attention back to these earlier interests. He undertook investigations into sunspot activity. He wrote papers on the subject putting forward the theory that ‘eruptions’ on the sun flung out negative particles into space. When they met the outer layers of the earth’s atmosphere they gave rise to interactions which caused the emission of light and gave rise to the aurora borealis. He likened the effect to that caused in a cathode ray tube.

Together with his friend Eckholm he also became interested in earth sciences. In particular he looked for reasons for climatic changes over geological time. He believed that the strong fluctuations in the climate of the earth were governed by two major factors - the moisture content and the content of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. He suggested that the fluctuations in the climate were so great that they oscillated between ice-ages and warm temperate periods when sub-tropical plants appeared in the flora of Western Europe and North America. He calculated that during the ice age the average global temperature would have been 5 degrees Celsius below its then present value and that the carbon dioxide content would have been about half its concentration. He pointed out that the absorption of infra-red radiation by carbon dioxide was so high as to have a significant effect in preventing the escape of much of the sun’s heat from the Earth’s surface back into space. He wrote a prophetic scientific paper almost exactly a hundred years ago in which he calculated the effect of carbon dioxide on global warming and the way in which the burning of fossil fuels would lead to changes in the earth’s climate. To-day we refer to it as the ‘Greenhouse Effect’.    

            His interest in Earth Sciences led him to make a study of submarine volcanoes and he advanced hypotheses to explain the mechanism by which magma erupted through fissures in the ocean floor.       

 Arrhenius was not without physical courage. In the summer of 1896 he considered joining a scientific balloon voyage planned by a friend of his S.A.Andree. The enthusiasm of his friend could in fact have easily led him to an early death. Andree had undertaken a number of balloon journeys over the Baltic Sea. He persuaded a third friend Strindberg to join them. If the weather was favourable they planned to make a balloon voyage starting from Spitzbergen and proceeding over the North Pole to finally land in Siberia. Arrhenius actually went to Spitzbergen to meet the other balloonists but the weather was so appalling that the journey was postponed until the following year. This may well have saved him from an early death and from participating in the tragedy that overcame his friends. The following year on 11 July 1897 Andree, Strindberg and Frankel took off on the expedition without Arrhenius. The balloon landed on a desolate island. The three frozen bodies were discovered  thirty three years later in August 1930.

 It is an interesting indication of Svandte’s determination that despite the bad weather that caused him to postpone the balloon journey he did in fact undertake a scientific oceanographical survey instead.. This in itself must have been an extremely exhausting experience . The weather was extremely stormy and the small expedition ship named the ‘Virgo’ was battered by the high seas. Meanwhile the ships Captain saw no point in the voyage and raided the store of every bottle of drink. He finally told the Professor that he could take over the voyage entirely on his own responsibility. The Captain then abandoned the bridge and went to his cabin where he spent the whole time in a drunken stupor. During this Arrhenius had to navigate the ship by himself.

            By 1898 Arrhenius had become so well known and respected that when the famous chemist Berzelius died at the age of fifty Cleve who up until then had been openly sarcastic about Svandte’s work said in an address that the mantle of Berzelius had descended upon Arrhenius. Even so Svandte still had his enemies. Because of the opposition of his detractors he had not even been elected to The Swedish Academy of Sciences by the end of the century. In 1901 when his name was put forward for membership of this society it was opposed by Thalen and other of his detractors who put forward the name of an elderly Norwegian meteorologist by the name of Mohn to block him. However finally the majority voted him in.

            Arrhenius was not only a ‘pure scientist’ but took a leading role in the application of science to technology. He became interested in the generation of electricity. He was one of the chief members of a working party visiting hydroelectric plants in Switzerland and Italy. He outlined his investigations in an important official paper to the Swedish Government entitled  ‘A Report of the Foreign Journeys for the Waterfalls Committee’. His influence led to some of the first important hydroelectric power stations in Sweden at Trollhatten and Porjus being built. He prophesied that the deposits of oil and coal would one day become exhausted and that our demand for energy would force us to look elsewhere. He came to the conclusion that in the future solar energy in the tropics and wind energy in the northern part of the temperate zones would become the main sources of energy for humankind.

            So versatile was the mind of Svandte Arrheniius that in 1902 he turned his attention to a completely different study - the application of chemistry and physics to medicine. As a result in 1902 he spent some time in the laboratories of  Madsen in Copenhagen where he worked extensively on Immunological Chemistry. This was a field of science that was to occupy him for many years. Comprehensive surveys were published in 1907 (Immunochemie) and 1915 (Quantitative Laws in Biological Chemistry).

            By 1900 Arrhenius was himself becoming part of the scientific establishment. Between 1900 an 1905 he was awarded many scientific prizes. In 1902 he was presented with the much coveted Davy-Medal from the Royal society in London and the following year he received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work on electrolytes in solution. In the summer of 1904 he was invited on a lecture tour to America and spoke on Immunochemistry at the Berkeley Campus of the University of California.  He became a personal friend  of the King of  Sweden who eventually gave him a position in the Nobel Institute and a house to go with the office.  The house remains to this day close to the grounds of Stockholm University and facing the school of Biochemistry which is named after Arrhenius.

From  his visit to California he went on to St Louis. He visited the famous Lick Observatory and carried out work on the Solar Corona.( On the physical nature of the Solar Corona. It was this visit that reawakened his interest in cosmology . He put forward the theory of PANSPERMIA in which he postulated that life may not have originated on Earth but that it floated from one planet to another across interplanetary and even interstellar space in the form of spores. It is a theory which is still held as a possibility to-day by some scientists. This theory is  not generally believed in to-day but still has its adherents.  Up until the time of his death Professor Fred Hoyle and his colleague Professor Wickramasingha of Bristol University who is still with us defended this theory very strongly.  There is certainly no doubt that biochemical substances do occur in space but whether the complete theory that living organisms in the form of spores or seeds are able to cross interstellar space is still a moot point.    From this Arrhenius became interested in the limits of life and carried out investigations into thermophilic bacteria which were known to be able to live at 80 degrees Celsius. He put forward the suggestion that the planet Venus may be a warm planet swarming with tropical life similar to the carboniferous age on Earth. This romantic theory gave rise to many science fiction ideas of the day. It was one of the things about which Arrhenius was wrong but he could hardly be blamed since with the available limited  evidence his theory was as good as any. It was to be over half a century later the first space vessels surveyed the planet and found it to be a blazing inferno where the clouds were made not of water but of concentrated sulphuric acid. He wrote a number of scientific articles on planetary astronomy, the milky way and on solar phenomena.. He also published a number of popular articles for the general public in on Astronomy which were translated into several languages on the origins of life and on astronomy.

            The period around 1905 was, as he himself said, a particularly lucky time in his life. In January of that year he was made an honorary member of the German Chemical Society. Because of his unavoidable absence on the day of presentation it was receive on his behalf by his close friend van’t Hoff. About the same time he was offered the post of Professor of Electrochemistry in the Technical High School at Charlottenburg in Prussia. When the Swedish authorities heard about it that decided to do everything they could to persuade Arrhenius to stay in his native country. Through the personal intervention of the King of Sweden a special position was created for Arrhenius in the Nobel Institute. He was appointed to the post of Director of Physical Chemistry Studies at the Institute.

 On the 25 March he became engaged to Maria (Maja) Johansson the sister of a leading Stockholm Professor of Physiology.

 In the summer of the same year there was a total eclipse of the sun . Despite being extremely busy Arrhenius could not let the rare opportunity slip. Accordingly he joined the expedition  with his friends  Kobb and Campbell to a small village in Aragon, Spain  which lay in the zone of totality. Here again he was lucky. Only a few miles away the weather was overcast but for Arrhenius and his friends the weather was perfect and they had an excellent view of the eclipse.

 He returned from the expedition to his exciting new job and to a wedding with his new bride. He was 46 years old at the peak of his carrier and entering a new marriage. He was extremely elated as his letters to his friend Ostwald show. He gathered round him a group of international scientists and was full of joy at having under him extremely well equipped laboratories. Many aspects of research into Physics and Chemistry were carried out under his direction. At the same time he was publishing important scientific works. He wrote a book on cosmology ‘Das Werden der Welten’ which was published in seven languages. In 1908 the buildings of the Institute were completed. They stood in the middle of green countryside near a hill  on which oak trees were growing . Attached to the Institute were the living quarters . It was here that until his death he and his wife entertained a constant stream of friends and co-workers. Four years after their marriage Svandte and Maria had a son Sven and later, in 1913 and 1914, two daughters Ester and Anna-Lisa were born. Sven and Arrhenius’s son Olof by his first marriage both took after their father. Olof became a botanist and a specialist in sugar cane and sugar beet and Sven went in for physical chemistry.

       In his day Arrhenius was the most famous scientist in Scandinavia particularly in Sweden. He led a full and happy life and was always surrounded by numerous friends. He was the perfect guest and host and enjoyed eating and drinking and the good things of life. Although he travelled less after his marriage than before he still made many journeys to scientific conferences both within Sweden and to many other countries. He was extremely attached to his family and letters to  the wife of his friend Ostwald written shortly after the birth of his second son show a doting father. Sven was a very active child and was so restless that he kept his mother Maria awake at night. It reveals a lot about the character of Svandte that he very happily took over entertain his restless son and got up to look after him. Later when the children were older he took great delight in the fact that they both went in for science . He encouraged them and helped them in their research.

As far as his trips abroad were concerned it was characteristic of him that he was always happy to travel second or third class. Even on his voyage to America he was quite contented to travel second class.. He hated hotels and found them inhospitable. He had friends all over the world who were only too happy to entertain him. He much preferred to stay with one of them when away from home. He formed deep and abiding friendships. One grief for him was that during the return journey from his second trip to America in 1911 he wanted to see his close friend van’t Hoff who was seriously ill. He was grief stricken when he arrived only a few hours after his old friend had died. One of his first acts when he went shortly afterwards to Paris was to deliver a memorial lecture in honour of his friend of many years.

            During the first half of the 1910-1920 decade Arrhenius wrote a number of books on Space Science and on Planets with particular attention to Mars and Venus. Despite his wide interests in so many fields of science Arrhenius had not lost his love of physical chemistry and he continued to carry out many experiments in that area of scientific investigation.

            In September 1913 he went to Birmingham (England ) where, together with Marie Curie, H.A.Lorenze and R.W.Wood, he received an honorary doctorate from Sir Oliver Lodge and the Vice-Chancellor of the University, Gilbert Barling. The following summer found him once again in England where he gave the Faraday Lecture and received the Faraday Medal.

            Soon after came the horror of the first world war. Like most cultured thinking men Arrhenius loathed the madness of war. Of course as a neutral Arrhenius was himself not directly involved. Even so much of his scientific work came to a stand-still. Part of the time he busied himself with experiments on viscosity particularly on colloidal solutions of the protein albumin. However his mind was very troubled and he found it hard to concentrate. He had friends and colleagues on both sides in all the countries of Europe.

After the war Arrhenius was mainly concerned with helping to heal the wounds and the damaged relationships that must have arisen between the former enemies. The award of the Nobel Prizes had been suspended during the war years and it was of particular joy to Arrhenius when the presentation of awards was begun again. To him it was a great opportunity to bring people together again who, had against their will, found themselves involved on opposite sides in the war. In a letter to his close friend and publisher Jolowicz he described how uplifting it was to attend the Prize Giving Ceremony in December 1921. It was, he said, an especially magnificent ceremony and it was uplifting to see Nernst the German and Anatole France the Frenchman shake hands together and greet each other warmly. He was particularly pleased to hear the speech that was delivered by Anatole France who delivered a strong condemnation of the Versailles Treaty. In this the Frenchman said that all it had done was to lay the seeds of another war. In his last years Arrhenius seemed to work harder than ever before. He was most concerned at the way in which many of his friends particularly on the German side were suffering economic hardship as a result of the problems that followed the war. In 1922 he began to travel abroad again and in at year he visited Brussels, Paris and Leipzig. He became deeply involved in administrative duties particularly those involved with the Nobel Foundation. When he was 65 he seemed so strong and healthy and full of life that he said he looked forward to his hundredth birthday. He had so much official work to do that he began to drive himself far too hard and started to get up regularly at four in the morning so that he could work on his publications and research until eight o’clock. On 1 July 1926 he was taken seriously ill but due to the nursing of his wife Maria and his sister Sigrid he recovered. On his sixty-eighth birthday the Swedish Academy granted him a good pension and permission to stay in his home for the rest of his life thus removing a great worry from his mind. His health improved and he insisted on going abroad again. He had been invited by his old friend Madsen to come to Copenhagen to attend the twenty-fifth anniversary of the opening of the Serum Institute. He went with his wife, who had not allowed him to travel alone for a whole year, and attended the celebrations on 9 September 1927. The journey went down well and Arrhenius threw himself back into working again on his publications. He was taken seriously ill on 25 September and a week later he died of heart failure caused by acute inflammation of the intestines on 2 October 1927.

            According to his last wishes his body was buried near the old home in which he had been brought up and in which his sister Sigrid still lived. Since his schooldays it had always been his dearest wish to become a Professor in the University of Upsala his home town. He had struggled long and hard but it was in his own home town that he had encountered the greatest opposition. He never got his wish but he attained to far greater heights - one of the most respected positions that any man has ever held was granted to this intellectual giant. Now on a 8 October on a sunny Autumn morning the whole of the academic staff of the University of Upsala, together with the complete student body, came out to witness the funeral of the greatest of their sons. He was finally laid to rest only a few steps from his Father’s house in which he had spent his boyhood years and where his sister Sigrid still lived. 




Important Dates

Birth of Arrhenius  19 February 1859

Death of Arrhenius   2 October 1927

Birthof Ostwald         2 September 1853

Death of Ostwald        4 April 1932

Birth of van’t Hoff      8 August 1852

Death of van’t Hoff     1 March 1911

The Nature of Life 

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Biography of Svandte Arrhenius published in German by Akademische Verlagsgesellschaft, Leipzig in 1931. Author E.H.Riesenfeld.

Great Chemists Edited by Eduard Farber. Published by Interscience Publishers, New York and London.