Robert A. Millikan. Walther Nernst, a great physicist, passes. The Scientific Monthly 54(1):84 - 86, 1942

p. 84 shows a photograph of W. Nernst tuning the Neo-Bechstein (1934)

Walther Nernst, a great physicist, passes

In the spring of 1896 the new Institute of Physical Chemistry at Göttingen was dedicated with the thirty-year-old Walther Nernst as director. Arrhenius was the chief speaker and guest of honor. There were seventeen of us advanced students in that laboratory that spring, sixteen of whom called themselves physicists and one a chemist. Six of the seventeen were Americans. All of us "sat in" on Nernst's general lectures which covered the material in his new book on "physical chemistry" upon which his reputation at that early age had largely been built. That book was notable in its grasp of the physics of the day with enough of chemistry to justify the title. The group in the laboratory regarded Nernst as essentially a physicist, well endowed with physical ingenuity and insight and a moderate knowledge of analytical procedures, who had had the ability to get a new laboratory built for himself by capitalizing on the recent discovery by chemists under the lead of Ostwald (Nernst had been with him at Leipzig) of what physics had been doing throughout the nineteenth century.

Nernst himself would not quarrel with the foregoing estimate even though it might seem a bit extreme. Nernst himself was a man of extremes. As a student he had spent his first two years at the university in "bummeling" as a typical member of one of the "fighting corps", the record of which showed in the scars on his face, acquired in his "mensur duels".

After his "bummeling" period he settled down to work intensively and acquired the grasp which gave him the standing, as well as the academic post, which he had won at the early age of thirty. His reputation at that time rested primarily upon his newly published book, psychologically well timed, and his design of a modification of the Wheatstone's bridge. This made it possible to balance out the capacities as well as the resistances of the arms of the bridge and thus improved the measurement of the dielectric constants of solutions, for example. He was a little fellow with a fish-like mouth and other well-marked idiosyncrasies. However, he was in the main popular in the laboratory, despite the fact that in the academic world he nearly always had a quarrel on with somebody. He lived on the second floor of the institute with his wife and three young children. As we students came to our work in the morning we would not infrequently meet him in his hunting suit going out for some early morning shooting.

He assigned and supervised most, though not all, of the problems going on in his laboratory. He was at that time working on the "Nernst lamp", which later brought him excellent commercial returns. I did some work there at his suggestion on the dielectric constants of emulsions. After my return to the United States I sent him the experimental results and included in the discussion of them an attempt to develop a theory not then in the literature of the anomalous dispersion of short electromagnetic waves. Nernst separated the theoretical part of the article from the experimental, sent the latter to the Annalen der Physik, and returned to me the former with the comment that he did not feel competent to pass on its validity and the suggestion that I try to get further tests of the theory and then send it in independently. Drude was at that time editor of the Annalen and the author of the current theory of anomalous dispersion. He published at once the experimental article, drew from it the same conclusion I had reached as to the inapplicability of his theory to such cases as those with which I was concerned and being entirely unaware of my theoretical work, developed exactly my equations, though with greater elegance than I had used, and published the new theory with due acknowledgment that he had got the suggestion for his article from my paper found in the preceding issue. The incident furnishes a bit of evidence that Nernst's greatest strength was in physical insight rather than in theoretical analysis.

Nernst had been in Göttingen but a few years when he accepted the directorship of the Institute of Physical Chemistry at Berlin. I again saw much of him there in the summer of 1912 when I found many more students attending his lectures than in Göttingen days. Excellent work too was going on in his laboratory, particularly on specific heats at low temperatures. This was the field in which his physical insights - his hunches - were most successful. At this time we were all trying to unravel the intricacies of the quantum theory, and specific heats showed us not only that equipartition had to break down, but just how it broke down. The third law of thermodynamics formulated at about this time is unquestionably the greatest monument to Nernst's scientific insight. He had some bad hunches in the field of cosmic-rays and the amount of energy he expended in his later years in trying, under the stimulus of the commercial motive, to develop a pure-toned piano, represented, so I always thought, very bad judgment, but the third law of thermodynamics is enough to give him a seat among the immortals.

His greatest weakness lay in his intense prejudices and the personal, rather than the objective, character of some of his judgments. An incident of 1912 illustrates. He had been entertaining me in most friendly way that summer and he was at that time preparing a new edition of his chemistry. I had just brought my work on e to what I thought a dependable conclusion. He asked me if I would not write that chapter of his new edition for him. I did so and of course had to deal with the work of others as well as of myself. He had recently come back from the first meeting of the Solvay Congress, at which Perrin, who preceded Nernst on the program, had consumed so much of Nernst's time as to greatly enrage him. He accordingly gave instructions to have Perrin's name expunged completely from the new edition of his book.

In 1931, when he was occupying the altogether logical post of director, now, not of the Institute of Physical Chemistry but of Physics, in the University of Berlin, he drove me through the city in his single-seated automobile. The quite vigorous and uncontrolled way in which he berated other drivers who, as he thought, got in his way, seemed to me an illustration of the way age in general tends to intensify the weaknesses which to some extent we have sometimes been able to hold in check in our earlier days. In Nernst's case the objectiveness of science made little headway against the intense prejudices of the Prussian.

Politically Nernst remained a Prussian of the Prussians - a strange mixture of the virtues and the vices of his race.

Robert A. Millikan

Walther Nernst homepage

Revised 2005-01-18