Wilhelm Ostwald

Among the scientific thinkers who can see the relevance and importance of particular scientific theories, who contribute as much to the propagation of important insights as to the genesis of new ones, and who have the gift to have a global vision of the scientific enterprise, one must list Wilhelm Ostwald (born: 2 September 1853). He was sensitive to art and music, but he was also one of the key founders of the field of physical chemistry. There was a time when there was only one chair for the subject in all of the universities of Germany, and Ostwald was its occupant.

Ostwald was one of the first to recognize the deeper significance in the works of Van’t Hoff and of Willard Gibbs, and himself made solid contributions to the theory of chemical affinity and to thermochemistry. His work on chemical affinity, done when he was in his mid-twenties,  won him international recognition. It was his translation of Gibbs’ papers into German that instigated interest in the American’s work in Europe. Ostwald was an experimentalist par excellence who drew a great many people to the charms and study of chemistry. His treatise on General Chemistry, published before he was thirty-five, served many generations of students. 

Ostwald did fundamental work  catalysis (in which the rate of chemical reactions is affected by the mere presence of a non-participating substance), stressing the role of ions here. His work was significant enough to win him the Nobel Prize for chemistry (1909).

He was so taken by the role of energy in various phenomena that he came to regard it as the key and most fundamental entity in terms of which everything is to be understood. This devotion to energetics made him develop a philosophy which saw the entire sweep of natural phenomena in terms of energy. The search for grand unification of phenomena under a single simple notion probably began before Thales of Miletus saw everything as arising from water, and is likely to continue in as yet unimagined modes in times to come.

Ostwald’s energetics program envisioned a time when even social sciences and humanities would be brought under its sway. In this context, he gave a simple measure of happiness G (Glueck) in terms of willingly expended energy (A), unwillingly expended energy (B), and a psychological factor k. The formula was,

G = k(A – B)/(A + B).

In his rooting for energy as the only ultimate reality, Ostwald also became the most eloquent and persuasive spokesperson for 19th century scientists who regarded atoms as no more than convenient concepts which really did not exist as such. However, by 1906, especially after the convincing work of Jean Perrin, Ostwald and his group began to concede the existence of atoms.

Fifty years before the gaia hypothesis was proposed (in the 1960s), Ostwald had formulated the idea that humanity may well be like an organism in which every individual is a cell.

Ostwald was as much interested in the history and impact of science as in science itself. He became one of the patrons of ISIS, the international review consecrated to the systematic and scholarly history of science. He was an ardent devotee of science as an institution, and – like the founders of the Royal Society in the 17th century – he dreamed of a time when science would be embraced by all humanity as a common worldview. But, like the aspirations of evangelizing Christians and converting Muslims, it has been as yet only a dream, facing many hurdles from heathens and infidels with respect to science.

October 21, 2013

Published by:

Varadaraja V. Raman

Physicist, philosopher, explorer of ideas, bridge-builder, devotee of Modern Science and Enlightenment, respecter of whatever is good and noble in religious traditions as well as in secular humanism,versifier and humorist, public speaker, dreamer of inter-cultural,international,inter-religious peace.

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