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Lars Onsager

Lars Onsager

Lars Onsager
BornNovember 27 1903(1903-11-27)
Christiania, (Oslo), Norway
DiedOctober 5 1976 (aged 72)
Coral Gables, Florida, U.S.
ResidenceUnited States
Nationality Norway
 United States
FieldPhysical chemist
InstitutionsETH Zürich
Johns Hopkins University
Brown University
Yale University
Alma materNorwegian Institute of Technology
Academic advisor  Peter Debye
Notable students  Joe McCauley
Known forOnsager reciprocal relations
Notable prizes Nobel Prize in Chemistry (1968)

Lars Onsager (November 27, 1903 – October 5, 1976) was a Norwegian-American physical chemist and theoretical physicist, winner of the 1968 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. He held the Gibbs Professorship of Theoretical Chemistry at Yale University.



Lars Onsager was born in Christiania (today's 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.

Johns Hopkins University

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.

Brown University

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 University

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 Norwegian Institute of Technology, 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, entitled, "Solutions of the Mathieu equation of period 4 pi and certain related functions", 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. He obtained the exact solution for the two dimensional Ising model at the critical point in 1944.

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, and in 1950 he joined the ranks of Alpha Chi Sigma.

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 University, he worked on the magnetic properties of metals. He developed important ideas on the quantization of magnetic flux in metals. He was awarded the Lorentz Medal in 1958 and the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1968.

After Yale

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). At the Center for Theoretical Studies at the University of Miami he remained active in guiding and inspiring postdoctoral students as his teaching skills, although not his lecturing skills, had improved during the course of his career. He developed interests in semiconductor physics, biophysics and radiation chemistry. However, his death came before he could produce any breakthroughs comparable to those of his earlier years.

He remained in Florida until his death from an aneurysm in Coral Gables, Florida in 1976. Onsager had a rivalry with Professor John Gamble Kirkwood at Yale that they both took to their graves, placed next to one another at New Haven's Grove Street Cemetery. While Kirkwood's tombstone has a long list of awards and positions, including the American Chemical Society Award in Pure Chemistry, the Richards Medal, and the Lewis Award, Onsager's tombstone, in its original form, simply said "Nobel Laureate."[1] In 1991, his children added an asterisk after "Nobel Laureate," and "*etc." in the lower right corner of the stone.


The Collected Works of Lars Onsager (with Commentary) World Scientific Series in 20th Century Physics - Vol. 17 Editors: Per Chr Hemmer, Helge Holden and Signe Kjelstrup Ratkje (World Scientific, Singapore 1996) ISBN 981-02-2563-6.

Constitutions of matter : mathematically modelling the most everyday of physical phenomena by Martin H. Krieger, University of Chicago Press, 1996. ISBN 0-226-45304-9 Contains a detailed pedagogical discussion of Onsager's solution of the phase transition of the 2-D Ising model.

  • H. Christopher Longuet-Higgins; Michael E. Fisher (1978). "Lars Onsager. 27 November 1903-5 October 1976". Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society 24: 443-471.
  1. ^
NAME Onsager, Lars
SHORT DESCRIPTION Physical chemist
DATE OF BIRTH November 27, 1903
PLACE OF BIRTH Christiania, (Oslo), Norway
DATE OF DEATH October 5, 1976
PLACE OF DEATH Coral Gables, Florida, U.S.
This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Lars_Onsager". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.
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