Saturday, August 23, 2014

Wilhelm Ostwald

Wilhelm Ostwald (1853-1932)
 Licensed under Public domain
 via Wikimedia Commons
One of my favorite things about writing this blog is discovering the interesting interests that the scientists
that I write about had, in addition to whatever work they are remembered for. So as I started to look for information on Wilhelm Ostwald, I was fascinated to discover that there were articles discussing his involvement with color and the Bauhaus (an art school in Germany in the 20s). Ostwald ripening, which is where I had heard his name before, seems to be one of the more minor contributions that he made: Ostwald won the 1909 Nobel Prize in Chemistry primarily for his work with catalysis, wrote 45 books and about 1000 publications, and is considered one of the founders of physical chemistry.

Ostwald was born in 1853 in Riga, Russia, and became a professor at Riga Polytechnic in 1882. One of his duties was to expand the laboratory, so he toured laboratories in Germany and had the opportunity to meet many German scientists. One of the things that he did at Riga was writing a two volume textbook. Another was translating Gibb’s work on chemical thermodynamics into German, which enabled it to be more widely read in Europe than the original English. He founded, with van’t Hoff, the first journal in physical chemistry,  Zeitschrift für Physikalische Chemie. It wasn’t the first journal he founded—he later started Annalen der Naturphilosophie.

In 1887 he then moved on to a position in Leipzig as the chair of physical chemistry—the only chair in physical chemistry in Germany. That same year he first recognized that catalysis was a kinetic process when he was studying the oxidation of hydrogen iodide by bromic acid, leading to the idea that a catalyst is something that modifies the rate of a reaction without being changed its self. Later, he tried to apply this to the problem of nitrogen fixation, but his method by catalysis with iron did not work. He did, however, patent a process for making nitric acid out of ammonia using a platinum catalyst in 1902, which is still the most commonly used process for making nitric acid today.

Svante Arrhenius published a paper in 1887 on electrolytic dissociation, the first in the field of electrochemistry. Ostwald had studied salt decomposition in obtaining a degree, and returned to it, developing his dilution law. He also wrote Elektrochemie from 1893-1896, a text on the subject, in which he also included the history of the developments and biographies of the scientists involved. He also formed an electrochemical society in 1894.

After about 1900, Ostwald turned more of his attentions to ideas of natural philosophy. In one of his works, Grosse Männer,  he divided scientists into two categories, classicists or romantics. There is actually a very interesting article by Robert Deltete and David Thorsell that compares the working styles of Josiah Gibbs and Wilhelm Ostwald as examples of these two styles. Ostwald is the romantic, jumping from one idea to the next, making connections with many people and not being afraid of publishing work before it is finished. Gibbs, on the other hand, led a fairly reclusive life, taught few students, and did not publish his work on thermodynamics until it was completed to his satisfaction.

Ostwald retired in 1906, but continued being involved in many different projects, societies, and researches. One of these was Brücke (The Bridge), an organization with the goal of organizing science to make it more efficient. Ostwald had been interested in energy for quite some time, and was actually one of the last well-renowned scientists to reject atomism. He favored an energetic explanation, and as such, conserving energy in many forms was one of his interests. He even named his retirement home, which he moved to in 1906, Haus Energie.[1] Some of the things that the Bridge did were to promote Esperanto as a universal language for science, reducing the need for translations of works, and to standardize publication formats for scientific publications. Several other scientists of note were involved in the Bridge, including Svante Arrhenius, Ernest Solvay, Ernest Rutherford, and Henri Poincaré. Ostwald also became involved in the German Monistic Alliance, which also had as its aim the unification of science, but included the reorganization of society as well. Ostwald was involved in both until Brücke closed in 1914 due to lack of funding and the difficulties of unifying science during the Great War.

After World War I, Ostwald he turned his attentions to color theory. He had been a painter since at least 1884, and now turned his scientific energies to color and developing a color theory. One of his most important contributions was giving value to the color grey. He even opened a pigment factory from 1920-1923. Walter Gropius invited him to speak at the Bauhaus and he even became a trustee. Ostwald considered his contributions to color theory some of his greatest work and nominated himself for a Nobel Prize for it (while, having won a Nobel Prize, he could nominate people, one can’t nominate ones self).

Now I don’t know how many of you may be materials scientists or others interested in Ostwald ripening, but I realize I haven’t mentioned it since the first paragraph. It is because very few of the articles I read even mentioned that work, and for a little while I was convinced that I had gotten the wrong Ostwald. But it turns out that this is the right guy. Ostwald ripening, which is a thermodynamic process observed in solutions, either solid or liquid, where larger crystals grow and smaller crystals shrink, comes from his work in the late 1890s.

[1] The house has been preserved, and was recently purchased by Gerda und Klaus Tschira Stiftung and it will serve as a location for scientific meetings. (Ertl, 2009)

Selected Works by Ostwald

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