Gustav Kirchhoff

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Gustav Robert Kirchhoff (12 March 1824 – 17 October 1887) was a German physicist who contributed to the fundamental understanding of electrical circuits, spectroscopy, and the emission of black-body radiation by heated objects. He coined the term "black body" radiation in 1862, and two sets of independent concepts in both circuit theory and thermal emission are named "Kirchhoff's laws" after him, as well as a law of thermochemistry. The Bunsen–Kirchhoff Award for spectroscopy is named after him and his colleague, Robert Bunsen.


Life and work

Gustav Kirchhoff was born in Königsberg, East Prussia, the son of Friedrich Kirchhoff, a lawyer, and Johanna Henriette Wittke. He graduated from the Albertus University of Königsberg in 1847 where he attended the mathematico-physical seminar directed by Franz Ernst Neumann and Friedrich Julius Richelot. He married Clara Richelot, the daughter of his mathematics professor Richelot. In the same year, they moved to Berlin, where he stayed until he received a professorship at Breslau.

Kirchhoff formulated his circuit laws, which are now ubiquitous in electrical engineering, in 1845, while still a student. He completed this study as a seminar exercise; it later became his doctoral dissertation. In 1857 he calculated that an electric signal in a resistanceless wire travels along the wire at the speed of light.[1] He proposed his law of thermal radiation in 1859, and gave a proof in 1861. He was called to the University of Heidelberg in 1854, where he collaborated in spectroscopic work with Robert Bunsen. Together Kirchhoff and Bunsen discovered caesium and rubidium in 1861. At Heidelberg he ran a mathematico-physical seminar, modelled on Neumann's, with the mathematician Leo Koenigsberger. Among those who attended this seminar were Arthur Schuster and Sofia Kovalevskaya. In 1875 Kirchhoff accepted the first chair specifically dedicated to theoretical physics at Berlin.

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