Sunday, 29 July 2007

Svante Arrhenius (1859-1927)

You think you know someone and then they go and do something that completely surprises you. Of course, I don’t personally know Svante Arrhenius, but I am well aware of his research. He is a Swedish physical chemist who studied electrolyte behaviour (similar to me) and proposed that chemical reactions must overcome an energy threshold (activation energy) before they will proceed, as described by the Arrhenius equation (which I often use in my work). To my amazement, I recently discovered that Arrhenius also predicted global warming. In 1896, he published a paper that demonstrated how changes in carbon dioxide levels could alter the surface temperature of the earth. Drawing upon previous work by Tyndall and Fourier (amongst others), his calculations showed that halving the CO2 levels would result in a temperature drop of 4 to 5 degrees Celsius, while doubling the CO2 would increase the temperature by 5 to 6 degrees Celsius. The time frame for doubling the CO2 was expected to be around 3000 years, while recent estimates suggest it will take approximately a century. Although the calculations were not exactly on the mark, the results are surprising close to current global warming predictions. Arrhenius believed that a rise in temperature would help to prevent another ice age, and even went so far to suggest that it was necessary in order to sustain the rapid growth in population. Overall, he seemed to have a positive view on global warming. If he were alive today, would he feel the same way?

3 comments:

ellen said...

Interesting stuff. I had forgotten 'the Arrhenius equation', but I refer to activation energies constantly (in a non-scientific, life-related way). Svante must've been a pretty smart guy!

Hayley Every said...

What I also find interesting is that on more than one occasion, his work was more or less dismissed by others, who believed it to be of little or no scientific significance. But in each case, he was later vindicated. I really think he was a man before his time.

Alphast said...

But he probably didn't know how to suck up to pairs and science bosses... Communication and PR are the keys to success. Sadly, even in science...