Walther Hermann Nernst

Walther Hermann Nernst was born on June 25, 1864 in Briesen, West Prussia, now Wabrzezno near Torun, Poland. He educated at Graudenz [now Grudziadz, Poland] (Gymnasium), Zurich, Berlin, Graz, Lepizig (PhD, 1889) and Wurzburg. He developed modern physical chemistry. From 1887 he was an assistant of Wilhelm Ostwald. He worked at University of Gottingen between 1890-1902. Futher Nernst worked at University of Berlin (1905-1933). He formulated the third law of thermodynamics:

For changes involving only perfect crystalline solids at absolute zero, the change of the total entropy is zero.
(The entropy of a perfect crystal of an element at the absolute zero of temperature is zero).

Nernst applied the principles of thermodynamics to the chemical reactions proceeding in a battery. In 1889, he showed how the characteristics of the current produced could be used to calculate the free energy change in the chemical reaction producing the current.

Chemical Thermodynamics
The first Nobel Prize for Chemistry, that to van't Hoff, was in part for work in chemical thermodynamics, and many later contributions in this area have also been recognized with Nobel Prizes. Already in 1920 Walther Hermann Nernst (1864-1941) of Berlin received this award for work in thermochemistry, despite a 16-year opposition to this recognition from Arrhenius. Nernst had shown that it is possible to determine the equilibrium constant for a chemical reaction from thermal data, and in so doing he formulated what he himself called the third law of thermodynamics. This states that the entropy, a thermodynamic quantity, which is a measure of the disorder in the system, approaches zero as the temperature goes towards absolute zero. van't Hoff had derived the mass action equation in 1886, with the aid of the second law which says, that the entropy increases in all spontaneous processes [this had already been done in 1876 by J. Willard Gibbs (1839-1903) at Yale, who certainly had deserved a Nobel Prize, but his work had been published in an obscure place]. According to the second law, heat of reaction is not an accurate measure of chemical equilibrium, as had been assumed by earlier investigators. But Nernst showed in 1906 that it is possible with the aid of the third law, to derive the necessary parameters from the temperature dependence of thermochemical quantities.

To prove his heat theorem (the third law) Nernst carried out thermochemical measurements at very low temperatures, and such studies were extended in the 1920s by G.N. Lewis in Berkeley. Lewis's new formulation of the third law was confirmed by his student William Francis Giauque (1895-1982), who extended the temperature range experimentally accessible by introducing the method of adiabatic demagnetization in 1933. With this he managed to reach temperatures a few thousandths of a degree above absolute zero and could thereby provide extremely accurate entropy estimates. He also showed that it is possible to determine entropies from spectroscopic data.
from The Nobel Prize in Chemistry: The Development of Modern Chemistry
by Bo G. Malmström.

In 1914 Walther Hermann Nernst and Max Planck succeeded in bringing Albert Einstein to Berlin.

Nernst first explained the ionization of certain substances when dissolved in water. He constructed an equation, known as the Nernst Equation, which related the voltage of a cell to its properties. Independently of Thomson, he explained why compounds ionize easily in water. The explanation, called the Nernst-Thomson rule, holds that it is difficult for charged ions to attract each other through insulating water molecules, so they dissociate.

He died on November 18, 1941 in Muskau, Germany.

Related links

Walther Hermann Nernst - The Nobel Prize in Chemistry 1920 from The Nobel Foundation
Walther Hermann Nernst - 1920 Nobel Laureate in Chemistry
Walther Hermann Nernst (1864-1941)
Walther Hermann Nernst (in Hebrew)
Walther Hermann Nernst (in Hungarian)

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Last Updated: 21 October 2007