Svante Arrhenius: Two Out of Three Ain't Bad

Crossposted with

A look at a scientist whose work, while more than a century old, remains remarkably relevant today.

The Swedish chemist and physicist Svante Arrhenius (1859-1927) is one of the giants of modern science. His scientific contributions touched on a wide range of subjects, but three in particular come to mind today.

1. A Pioneer in Physical Chemistry

Arrhenius is best known for his work establishing the link between the fields of chemistry and physics. For example, he established how water solutions work, elucidating the connection between ions dissolved in water and electricity. Sound esoteric? Not really. The relationship between ions and electricity is what makes a battery work. (All you refugees from Chemistry 101 might recall something called the Arrhenius equation, which describes the relationship between a chemical reaction and temperature. That's the very same Arrhenius.)

2. A Pioneer in Climate Science

The greenhouse effect and climate change have been front-page, headline-grabbing stuff for decades now. But scientists have been studying the phenomenon for more than a century, Arrhenius included.

In the 1890s Arrhenius concluded that atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) concentrations were on the rise as a result of human activities, and calculated that a doubling of CO2 would lead to an increase in global temperatures by about 5 to 6 degrees Celsius.

3. Speculated on the Origin of Life

Arrhenius was an early proponent of panspermia, the idea that life on Earth was extraterrestial in origin -- seeded by life forms that arrived from outer space. In his view, life came to our planet in the forms of spores that in turn came from other planets.

The Tally: Arrhenius's Two out of Three

So how'd he do?

  1. Arrhenius nailed the chemistry stuff, receiving the Nobel Prize in 1903 for his work in the area.
  2. He did pretty darn well on the greenhouse effect. More than one hundred years after his climate work, and hundreds of thousands of observations later (including from space-borne platforms and the use of sophisticated computer models), the basic climate findings of Arrhenius have been confirmed. Although it appears he did overestimate the sensitivity of the climate to a doubling of CO2. Best estimates are that the temperature change is closer to 2 to 4.5 degrees Celsius.
  3. On the panspermia thing? Well, we don't know exactly how life on Earth began, but the panspermia idea is not generally thought to be a leading candidate. (See here for some of the ideas that are currently thought to be most promising.)

So, as we close the record book on Arrhenius, again I'd say two out of three ain't bad.

But Could New Findings Up the Tally?

But wait a minute, don't close the record books on Arrhenius just yet. Checking out Andy Revkin's blog over the weekend, I learned that NASA scientist Richard Hoover, reporting in the Journal of Cosmology, found what he believes are fossils of primitive life forms (cyanobacteria) in meteorites. Now, there are scientists out there who are skeptical of Hoover's conclusions, including one who reportedly placed them in the "'Kooks' category." But just think: if Hoover's observations stand up to further scrutiny, they could give a whole new life to panspermia.

I suspect the ghost of Arrhenius is rooting for Hoover. Who needs two-thirds of a loaf when you can have three out of three?