Walther Nernst (1864-1941)

Walther Hermann Nernst was a German physical chemist and physicist, best remembered for developing the third law of thermodynamics. He was born in Briesen, Prussia (now Wabrzezno, Poland), the son of a district judge. He studied physics and mathematics at the Universities of Zürich, Berlin and Graz, and finally graduated from the University of Würzburg in 1887.

In 1894, Nernst accepted an invitation to become the Chair of Physical Chemistry in Göttingen, where he founded the Institute for Physical Chemistry and Electrochemistry and became its Director. In 1905 he was appointed a professor in chemistry and later physics at the University of Berlin, and in 1924 he also became Director of the Institute of Physical Chemistry in the same city.

The Nernst heat theorem, which he formulated in 1906, was used to develop the third law of thermodynamics, and his atom chain reaction theory followed in 1916. Nernst’s other important accomplishments included inventing the Nernst lamp and developing the ‘Neo-Bechstein-Flügel’ electric piano. His later career was dedicated to astrophysics and other aspects of electroacoustics.

Nernst was an outspoken opponent of Hitler and the Nazi party, with two of his daughters in fact marrying Jewish men. This criticism effectively meant the end of his career once the Nazis came to power in 1933. Nernst died in Zibelle, Lusatia in Germany, after receiving many prizes over his career, including the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1920 for his contribution to thermochemistry.