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Lars Onsager

Lars Onsager (November 27, 1903-October 5, 1976) was a Norwegian-American physical chemist, winner of the 1968 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

Table of contents
1 His life before coming to the United States
2 At Johns Hopkins
3 At Brown
4 Yale and later

His life before coming to the United States

Lars Onsager was born in Christiania (now Oslo), Norway. His father was a lawyer. After completing secondary school in Oslo, he attended the Norwegian Institute of Technology (NTH) in Trondheim, graduating as a chemical engineer in 1925.

In 1925 he arrived at a correction to the Debye-Hückel theory of electrolytic solutions, to take care of Brownian movement of ions in solution, and in 1926 published it. He made a trip to Zürich, where Peter Debye was teaching, and confronted Debye, telling him his theory was wrong. He so thoroughly impressed Debye that he was invited to become Debye's assistant at the Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule (ETH), where he remained until 1928.

At Johns Hopkins

Eventually in 1928 he went to the United States of America to take a faculty position at the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. At JHU he had to teach freshman classes in chemistry, and it quickly became apparent that, while he was a genius at developing theories in physical chemistry, he had no talent for teaching. He was dismissed by JHU after one semester.

At Brown

On leaving JHU, he took a position (involving the teaching of statistical mechanics to graduate students in chemistry) at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, where it became clear that he was no better at teaching advanced students than freshmen, but he made significant contributions to statistical mechanics and thermodynamics. The only graduate student who could really understand his lectures on electrolyte systems, Raymond Fuoss, worked under him and eventually joined him on the Yale chemistry faculty. In 1933, when the Great Depression limited Brown's ability to support a faculty member who was only useful as a researcher and not a teacher, he was let go by Brown, being hired after a trip to Europe by Yale University, where he remained for most of the rest of his life, retiring in 1972.

His work at Brown was mainly concerned with the effects on diffusion of temperature gradients, and produced the Onsager reciprocal relations, a set of equations published in 1929 and, in an expanded form, in 1931, in statistical mechanics whose importance went unrecognized for many years. However, their value became apparent in the decades following World War II, and by 1968 they were considered important enough to gain Onsager that year's Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

In 1933, just before taking up the position at Yale, Onsager traveled to Austria to visit electrochemist Hans Falkenhagen. He met Falkenhagen's sister-in-law, Margrethe Arledter. They were married on September 7, 1933, and had three sons and a daughter.

Yale and later

At Yale, an embarrassing situation occurred: he had been hired as a postdoctoral fellow, but it was discovered that he had never received a Ph. D While he had submitted an outline of his work in reciprocal relations to the Norges Tekniske Høgskole, they had decided it was too incomplete to qualify as a doctoral dissertation. He was told that he could submit one of his published papers to the Yale faculty as a dissertation, but insisted on doing a new research project instead. His dissertation was beyond the comprehension of the chemistry and physics faculty, and only when some members of the mathematics department, including the chairman, insisted that the work was good enough that they would grant the doctorate if the chemistry department would not, was he granted a Ph. D. in chemistry in 1935. Even before the dissertation was finished, he was appointed assistant professor in 1934, and promoted to associate professor in 1940. He quickly showed at Yale the same traits he had at JHU and Brown: he produced brilliant theoretical research, but was incapable of giving a lecture at a level that a student (even a graduate student) could comprehend. He was also unable to direct the research of graduate students, except for the occasional outstanding one.

In the late 1930s, Onsager turned his work direction to the dipole theory of dielectrics, making improvements in another area that had been studied by Peter Debye. However, when he submitted his paper to a journal that Debye edited in 1936, it was rejected; Debye would not accept Onsager's ideas until after World War II. In the 1940s, he studied the statistical-mechanical theory of phase transitions in solids, deriving a mathematically elegant theory which was enthusiastically received.

In 1945, Onsager was naturalized as an American citizen, and the same year he was awarded the title of J. Willard Gibbs Professor of Theoretical Chemistry. This was particularly appropriate because Onsager, like Willard Gibbs, had been primarily involved in the application of mathematics to problems in physics and chemistry and, in a sense, could be considered to be continuing in the same areas where Gibbs had pioneered.

In 1947, he was elected to the National Academy of Sciences.

After World War II, Onsager turned to new areas of interest. He proposed a theoretical explanation of the superfluid properties of liquid helium in 1949; two years later the physicist Richard Feynman independently proposed the same theory. He also worked on the theories of liquid crystals and the electrical properties of ice. While on a Fulbright scholarship to Cambridge, England, he worked on the magnetic properties of metals.

At age 70, Onsager was involuntarily retired as an emeritus professor at Yale, in 1973. He was then appointed Distinguished University Professor at the University of Miami (Florida). He remained in Florida until his death from a heart attack in Coral Gables, Florida three years later.

At Florida he became interested in biophysics and radiation chemistry. However, his death came before he could produce any breakthrough theories.