German physical chemist, who was awarded the 1920 Nobel Prize for Chemistry for his work in the field of thermodynamics.
The son of a Prussian judge, Nernst was educated at the universities of Zürich, Berlin, Würzburg, and Graz. He taught briefly at Leipzig before being appointed in 1890 to the chair of chemistry at Göttingen. In 1904 Nernst moved to Berlin, where he remained in the post of professor of physical chemistry until his retirement in 1933. In this year Nernst, despising the Nazis, retired to his estates in Prussia. These had been acquired quite early in his life with the fortune he had made selling his rights in a form of electric light he had invented. Offered a royalty, Nernst prudently took a lump sum shortly before his light was replaced by the more efficient tungsten-filament lamp.
Nernst's early work in electrochemistry was followed in 1906 by the major advance in thermodynamics he made with his statement of the Nernst heat theorem, which predicts that there would be no change in entropy in a reaction between crystalline solids at absolute zero. This can be generalized into a statement of the third law of thermodynamics, which states that absolute zero cannot be attained in a finite number of steps. Nernst is also remembered for his Theoretische Chemie vom Standpunkte der Avogadroschen Regel und der Thermodynamik (1893; translated as Theoretical Chemistry from the Standpoint of Avogadro's Rule and Thermodynamics, 1895), a much used and translated textbook of the period.
Subjects: Science and Mathematics.