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78) An older fight for acceptance

Ludwik Kowalski (July 12, 2003)
Department of Mathematical Sciences
Montclair State University, Upper Montclair, NJ, 07043

It is well known that neither pure water nor table salt are good electrical conductors. But the resistance of a solution of salt in water is relatively low. How can it be? This was a dilemma puzzling 19th century scientists. It was brilliantly solved by Svante Arrhenius, a Swedish scientist (1859-1927). According to C.G. Beaudette, the grand daughter of this scientist was a researcher at Utah University when cold fusion discovery was announced in 1989. After the press conference she spoke with Fleischmann and Pons. She said “Well, when my grandfather proposed electrolytic dissociation, he was dismissed from the University. At least that won’t happen to you.” She was mistaken, both scientists were dismissed.

The history of Arrhenius’s model of molecular dissociation is being presented by Beaudette as an example of difficulties encountered by those who promote new ideas. Let me quote from the Chapter 11 of his interesting book: “Excess Heat: Why Cold Fusion Research Prevailed,” Oak Grow Press, LLC, South Bristol, Maine, USA, 2000. I strongly recommend this book for a school library. Arrhenius’s “story bridged the turn of the twentieth century. His breach with the orthodox scientific community of twenty years duration, his intellectual survival in a small group with his scientific fellows, and the argument whether his discovery was one of chemistry or physics, all parallel the instance of the Fleischmann and Pons controversy.

Arrhenius finally achieved collegiality between himself and the scientific world by persistently teaching his discoveries. His story is almost prophetic of what happened in "cold fusion" research during its first ten years. He was banished from both his university and the Swedish scientific establishment. He overcame that affliction and went on to great acclaim as a revered elder statesman within the European scientific community. He accomplished much of this by attaching himself to a foreign scientist of recognized integrity.

Arrhenius's principal scientific discovery asserted that when a salt is dissolved in water, each molecule of the salt separates into electrically charged electrolyte particles that had been named ions fifty years earlier. It was ions that interacted chemically with other ions in solution rather than with atoms or molecules. He asserted that these ions carried an electrical charge as they moved about and were the mechanism by which the solution conducted electrical current.

There was open and often bitter controversy during the two decades after he announced the discovery. The distinguished German chemist Wilhelm Ostwald stood at his side as a foreign savior and mentor during Arrhenius's most difficult times. Ostwald attested to the correctness of Arrhenius's thesis and he started a new technical publication as a vehicle for spreading and defending the ionic theory. They traveled the world of science arguing Arrhenius' theory. The two of them made a major presentation and defense of his theories in London in 1890.

Arrhenius's redemption at home began when the University of Stockholm's predecessor institution offered him a position as professor. The offer was made under somewhat humiliating conditions, which he bore with grace. He was quickly accepted by his colleagues and in two years was elected to the presidency of the school. In 1903, he became the first Swede to be awarded the Nobel Prize and it was in chemistry. He enjoyed the considerable recognition of other scientists continuously until his death in 1927.

It is necessary to look back further to understand the nature of Arrhenius' fall from scientific grace. Scientists had struggled to understand electrical conduction in liquids for the previous one hundred years. . . . Svante August Arrhenius grew up near the world-famous State University of Upsala, Upsala, Sweden. As a bright youth, he turned his attention early to experimenting with electrical conduction through salt solutions. When he entered the University, Professor Robert Thalen, the professor for physics, did not take him seriously and refused him the use of the physics laboratory. He did his experiments in the laboratory of Erik Edlund, Academy physicist.

Arrhenius made the fateful decision to continue with his interest in conductive solutions when he enrolled to study for his doctorate degree. He records the exact moment when he came to his principal discovery about conductivity in solutions. It was on May 17, 1883, that he entered a period of feverish work to write it down. He claimed that the salt molecules in solution divided into electrically polarized particles called ions. He confirmed for himself that he understood what was happening in salt solutions. His full statement of discovery claimed that these ions became the reactive elements for chemical behavior in solution and were also the agents for electrical conduction.

The relationship between theory and experiment was not well understood at this time in the development of modern science. Arrhenius had conceived a theory of ion formation and action. Professor Per Teodor Cleve, his doctoral advisor, was a distinguished scientist and the discoverer of the two metals: holmium (holmio was the Latin name for Stockholm) and thulium. Cleve considered theory to be something like Henry Ford's history, that is "bunk." Arrhenius's thesis dissertation was closely fought, and the outcome was only a partial victory for him. He received his doctorate degree of the fourth class, the lowest of four possible grades, and designated non sine laude approhatur, approved not without praise. He could not pursue an academic career at the university.

He responded to the setback by sending copies of his thesis to several prominent scientists outside of Sweden. One went to Wilhelm Ostwald, professor of chemistry at the Polytechnical School at Riga, in the Russian provence of Livonia, later Latvia. Ostwald found his thesis compelling and decided to help him. He traveled by train to Stockholm to meet and befriend Arrhenius. The result of Ostwald's mediation was the offer of a teaching position for Arrhenius in the Stockholm Technical High School (the Hogskola, later part of Stockholm University). The world of science was focused at that time entirely in Europe and North America. Ostwald's continued patronage of Arrhenius and his thesis gradually brought the world of science to terms with the existence of ions in solution.

Arrhenius gained the respect and fellowship of his colleagues in the Hogskola, a result of his increasing international renown. During this time, Arrhenius married Sofia Rudbeck, one of his pupils. The marriage lasted only two years and produced a son, Olav Vilhelm. Later he became deeply involved in the establishment of the Nobel Prize awards after the death of Alfred Bernhard Nobel in 1896 and in the adjudication of his will." His principal contribution to the establishment of the Nobel Academy was his insistence that the nomination and award selection procedures be international in their vision. The Academy elected him a member of both the chemistry and physics award selection committees. J. H. van't Hoff, a colleague in Holland, received the prize in chemistry in 1901, the first year of the chemistry awards. Arrhenius received it in 1903 after a thoroughly contentious candidacY His discovery of ionic disassociation in solution raised the significant question whether it was a physical or chemical discovery.

The physics award committee included Professor Thalen, from Upsala. It had no members from the Hogskola other than Arrhenius. The Upsala University members looked down on the Hogskola as an inferior institution. Thalen, who strongly influenced the physics committee's position concerning Arrhenius's candidacy, successfully persuaded the committee that Arrhenius's discovery was more properly assigned to chemistry thus absolving the physics committee of his candidacY Cleve, who had once refused any interest in the young Arrhenius's theories, now advanced Arrhenius's cause effectively in the chemistry award committee and was successful in achieving for him the chemistry award.

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