“Introduced by my boss into the borderland of physics and chemistry, the physical chemistry,
from this point on I have worked in this area.”

Walther Nernst about his job as assistant of professor Wilhelm Ostwald at the University of Leipzig, 1887

Short life history: Walther Nernst

* June 25, 1864 Briesen, Western Prussia, †November 18, 1941 Manor Oberzibelle near Muskau, upper Lausitz

After the studies in physics, chemistry and mathematics in Zurich, Berlin, Graz and Wuerzburg, Nernst obtained a doctorate with Friedrich Kohlrausch (1840–1910) in Wuerzburg in 1887 “about the effect of magnetism on the flow of electricity and heat” (Ettinghausen-Nernst-Effect). At the request of Wilhelm Ostwald (1853–1932) he changed to the University of Leipzig as assistant for physics in October 1887. In 1889 he was given the job of a university lecturer with Wilhelm Ostwald with the work “The electromotive efficiency of the ions”. Further jobs as an assistant in Heidelberg and Goettingen followed.

His career as university teacher began in Goettingen in 1891. He received the nomination to be associate professor for physical chemistry. He married Emma Lohmeyer in September 1892. He became full professor for physical chemistry in Goettingen in 1894.

Nernst, the joint founder of modern physical chemistry, worked very successfully in the area of electro and thermodynamics. Among other things he formulated the Nernst Distribution Law in 1890, invented the Nernst lamp in 1897, which is named after him, (a predecessor of our today bulbs) and discovered the Nernst Law of Electrical Nerve Stimulus Threshold in 1899.

In 1905 he went to the University of Berlin as professor for physical chemistry. There he succeeded in his greatest discovery in 1906, the heat theorem according to Nernst, better known as the third fundamental theorem of thermodynamics. “As recognition for his thermodynamic works” Nernst received the Nobel Prize for chemistry for the year 1920.

During World War I Nernst put his work force under the command of the army. In 1921 and 1922 he worked as head of the University of Berlin and from 1922 to 1924 as president of the Physical-Technical Reichs Institute, also situated in Berlin. From 1924 until he conferred emeritus status (1933) Nernst was the predecessor of Heinrich Rubens (1865–1922) on the chair for experimental physics at the University of Berlin.

Apart from his performances as scientist, two of his performances as scientific organiser shall also be mentioned here. Nernst was the one who made the Belgian chemist and industrial Ernest Solvay (1838–1922) convene conferences from time to time (Solvay Congress) at which the leading European physicists had the possibility to discuss their latest theories. The first congress took place in 1911.

It was, last but not least, the merit of Walther Nernst who, next to Max Planck (1858–1947) and others, called Albert Einstein (1879–1955) to Berlin in 1914.