Memoirs: A Twentieth-Century Journey in Science and Politics

By Edward Teller; Judith L. Shoolery | Go to book overview
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PROFESSOR ARNOLD EUCKEN, the agent of my arrival at Göttingen, was deeply interested in low-temperature physical chemistry, the natural bridge between chemistry and the science of atoms. 1 Eucken had studied under Walter Nernst, the dominant figure in physical chemistry at that time. 2 Nernst had become a sort of father figure to Eucken: the epitome of all Eucken hoped to become and a rival whom Eucken wouldn't mind contradicting.

I never met Nernst, but his personality can be surmised from a story that circulated about his origin:

God decided to make an exceptional man. He first created an intellect, and that carried the mark of God's own hand. But unfortunately, God was called to the telephone, and Nernst remained unfinished. The archangel Gabriel came by and thought he would provide a body for the brain. He did a creditable job, but Gabriel felt his work was not quite what the plan called for, so he, in turn, left. Then the last participant saw his chance and finished off the creation: The Devil gave Nernst his character.

At absolute zero, materials are in their lowest quantum state. In the 1930s, the words near absolute zero meant temperatures where the energy available to atoms was perhaps one-hundredth that of room temperature. Today, such studies are conducted at temperatures one-millionth that of room temperature.
Nernst's theorem (which is also called the third law of thermodynamics) states that at absolute zero, order is perfect. Nernst was also an almost successful competitor of Thomas Edison, having invented a high-intensity electric glow lamp.


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Memoirs: A Twentieth-Century Journey in Science and Politics
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