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Lars Onsager

Lars OnsagerBorn: 27-Nov-1903
Birthplace: Oslo, Norway
Died: 5-Oct-1976
Location of death: Coral Gables, FL
Cause of death: unspecified
Remains: Buried, Grove Street Cemetery, New Haven, CT

Gender: Male
Race or Ethnicity: White
Sexual orientation: Straight
Occupation: Chemist

Nationality: United States
Executive summary: Fourth Law of Thermodynamics

In 1926, chemist Lars Onsager showed that Peter Debye's equation describing the behavior of ions in electrolyte solutions had failed to take Brownian motion into account. This finding so impressed Debya that he hired the 23-year-old Onsager as a research assistant. Onsager came to America in 1928, where he briefly taught an introductory chemistry class at Johns Hopkins, but he found it difficult to explain basic science to neophyte students, and after one term his contract was not renewed.

He then taught more advanced chemistry at Brown University for several years, but not well — his English was fine, but his lectures were universally described as incomprehensible. He was, however, an outstanding thinker and researcher, and while at Brown he conducted his landmark research into the thermodynamics of irreversible chemical processes. In 1931 he showed that variables such as pressure and temperature are reciprocal in irreversible chemical processes, and laid out new mathematical expressions to describe this behavior and a new theoretical description of these processes. His findings, sometimes called Onsager reciprocal relations, are known collectively as the Fourth Law of Thermodynamics.

Remarkably, he did not even begin the pursuit of his doctorate until two years later, when he was laid off at Brown in the early days of the Great Depression. He eventually found an unpaid fellowship and later a part-time faculty post at Yale, where earned his PhD in 1935. He spent the rest of his life nominally teaching at Yale, but making few classroom appearances, which both he and his students no doubt appreciated. In the latter part of his career he studied the dipole theory of dielectrics and the statistical-mechanical theory of phase transitions in solids. He won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1968.

Father: Erling Onsager (attorney)
Mother: Ingrid Kirkeby Onsager
Wife: Margarethe Arledter Onsager (three sons, one daughter)
Son: Erling Frederick Onsager
Son: Hans Tanberg Onsager
Son: Christian Carl Onsager
Daughter: Inger Marie Onsager Oldham

    High School: Frogner School of Commerce, Oslo (1920)
    Scholar: BS Chemical Engineering, Norwegian Institute of Technology, Trondheim (1925)
    Scholar: Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (1926-28)
    Teacher: Chemistry, Johns Hopkins University (1928)
    Teacher: Chemistry, Brown University (1928-33)
    Fellow: Sterling Fellowship, Yale University (1933-34)
    Teacher: Chemistry, Yale University (1934-45)
    University: PhD Chemistry, Yale University (1935)
    Professor: Josiah Willard Gibbs Professor of Theoretical Chemistry, Yale University (1945-72)
    Scholar: Royal Society Mond Laboratory, Cambridge, England (1951-52)

    Fulbright 1951-52
    Rumford Prize 1953
    Lorentz Medal 1958
    Bernard Lewis Gold Medal 1962
    ACS John Gamble Kirkwood Medal 1962
    ACS Willard Gibbs Medal 1962
    Peter Debye Award in Physical Chemistry 1965
    Belfer Award in Science 1966
    Nobel Prize for Chemistry 1968
    National Medal of Science 1969
    Alpha Chi Sigma Chemistry Fraternity
    American Academy of Arts and Sciences
    American Chemical Society
    American Philosophical Society
    American Physical Society
    German Bunsen Society for Applied Physical Chemistry Foreign Member (1969)
    National Academy of Sciences
    Norwegian Academy of Science Foreign Member
    Royal Norwegian Academy of Sciences Foreign Member
    Royal Society of Sciences in Uppsala Foreign Member
    Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences Foreign Member
    Immigrated to America 1928
    Naturalized US Citizen 1945
    Norwegian Ancestry

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