Lars Onsager

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Lars Onsager (November 27, 1903 – October 5, 1976) was a Norwegian-born American physical chemist and theoretical physicist, winner of the 1968 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. He held the Gibbs Professorship of Theoretical Chemistry at Yale University.



Lars Onsager was born in Kristiania (today's Oslo), Norway. His father was a lawyer. After completing secondary school in Oslo, he attended the Norwegian Institute of Technology (NTH) in Trondheim, graduating as a chemical engineer in 1925.

In 1925 he arrived at a correction to the Debye-Hückel theory of electrolytic solutions, to specify Brownian movement of ions in solution, and during 1926 published it. He traveled to Zürich, where Peter Debye was teaching, and confronted Debye, telling him his theory was wrong. He impressed Debye so much that he was invited to become Debye's assistant at the Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule (ETH), where he remained until 1928.

Johns Hopkins University

Eventually in 1928 he went to the United States of America to take a faculty position at the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. At JHU he had to teach freshman classes in chemistry, and it quickly became apparent that, while he was a genius at developing theories in physical chemistry, he had little talent for teaching. He was dismissed by JHU after one semester.

Brown University

On leaving JHU, he accepted a position (involving the teaching of statistical mechanics to graduate students in chemistry) at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, where it became clear that he was no better at teaching advanced students than freshmen, but he made significant contributions to statistical mechanics and thermodynamics. The only graduate student who could really understand his lectures on electrolyte systems, Raymond Fuoss, worked under him and eventually joined him on the Yale chemistry faculty. In 1933, when the Great Depression limited Brown's ability to support a faculty member who was only useful as a researcher and not a teacher, he was let go by Brown, being hired after a trip to Europe by Yale University, where he remained for most of the rest of his life, retiring in 1972.

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