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Nernst, (Hermann) Walther

thermodynamics law electrochemistry third

(1864–1941) German physical chemist: pioneer of chemical thermodynamics and discoverer of the third law of thermodynamics.

Nernst studied physics in four German universities and worked in two more, becoming increasingly concerned with the application of physics to chemical problems. He was appointed to a professorship in Berlin in 1905. His early researches on electrochemistry, and on thermodynamics, established his fame. In 1904 he devised an electric lamp which he sold for a million marks. The lamp was soon superseded for lighting by , but it had made Nernst rich. He acquired a country estate and indulged his passion for the new enthusiasm, the motor car.

Of his many contributions to chemical thermodynamics, the best-known is his ‘heat theorem’ which became the third law of thermodynamics: all perfect crystals have the same entropy at absolute zero. He argued that it was the last law of thermodynamics; because the first law had three discoverers, the second two, and the third, one (Nernst). In fact the zeroth law was yet to be formally enunciated and has no single discoverer.

Nernst’s widespread research in physical chemistry included much electrochemistry; the concept of solution pressure is due to him, and much of the thermodynamic treatment of electrochemistry, as well as contributions to the theory of indicators and buffer action. In photochemistry he proposed the now familiar path for the fast reaction between hydrogen and chlorine, involving a chain reaction based on atomic chlorine.

Nernst was kindly but immodest, and he and his family were known as the most hospitable academic family in Berlin. In the First World War he saw early that Germany must lose, and tried to persuade the Kaiser and others to seek peace, without success. Both his sons were killed in the war. Afterwards he declined an offer to become ambassador to the USA. He was awarded a Nobel Prize in 1920. From the beginning he opposed Hitler’s policies; unsuccessful, he retired to his country estate. Anecdotes about him, from his many distinguished pupils, are legion. No-one in his time held a wider or deeper grasp of physical chemistry or did more to advance it.

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