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Ostwald, Friedrich Wilhelm

chemistry physical modern studied

[ost vahlt] (1853–1932) German physical chemist: pioneer of modern physical chemistry.

Modern physical chemistry was largely created by three men; and Ostwald. His parents were German but they had settled in Latvia, then under Russian domination. He had a happy childhood, with some hobbies of a fairly chemical kind: painting (he ground his own colours), photography (he made his own wet plates) and firework-making. He had to repeat one school year, and he had problems with the compulsory Russian language. He studied chemistry at Dorpat (now Tartu) University, did well and became professor at the Riga Polytechnic in 1881. His fame spread, and in 1887 he was called to Leipzig University, where he remained. His work in physical chemistry was wide-ranging; he studied the rates of hydrolysis of salts and esters, the conductivity of solutions, viscosities, the ionization of water and catalysis; he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1909. He took up new ideas in physical chemistry with enthusiasm, did much to unify and expand the subject, and saw the study of the energetics of chemical reaction as central to the subject.

For a long time Ostwald believed that atoms were only a convenient hypothesis and had no real existence; but in the 20th-c direct evidence for them had arrived and by 1908 he was a late convert to ‘atomism’.

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