Walther Nernst

1864 - 1941

Memorial website

Click for large picture. Source: Museum der Göttinger Chemie www.museum.chemie.uni-goettingen.de

This website is dedicated to the memory of Walther Hermann Nernst (1864 - 1941)

Biography (Nobel Foundation) Curriculum vitae (1890-02-06, in Latin)

Walther Hermann Nernst (article in the local newspaper Göttinger Tageblatt, 2002-11-27, in German )


Walther Nernst Museum, University of Göttingen, physicochemical institute

Colloquium on Physical Chemistry, University of Göttingen, Walther Nernst lecture hall

Nernst Heat Theorem (Third Law of Thermodynamics) (1905)

Nernst Heat Theorem. Click for large pictureOriginal formulation of Walther Nernst:

lim dA/dT = lim dU/dT = 0 for T = 0

(Eq. 8 of Ref. 1, Eq. 4 of Ref. 2; however, Nernst used the symbol Q instead of U. Left: Fig. 2 of Ref. 2)

The entropy change in a reaction between pure substances approaches zero at T = 0. Nernst himself, however, did not make explicit use of the term entropy.

Max Planck subsequently (1910) made the stronger statement:

Beim Nullpunkt der absoluten Temperatur besitzt die Entropie eines jeden chemisch homogenen Körpers von endlicher Dichte den Wert Null. [3]

(As the temperature diminishes indefinitely, the entropy of a chemically homogeneous body of finite density approaches indefinitely near to the value zero).

S = 0 for T = 0

As a consequence, it follows from the Third Law that the absolute zero of the (absolute) temperature scale, i.e., a temperature of zero kelvin (T = 0 K) cannot be attained by any means.

This principle of the unattainability of the absolute zero has been formulated by Fowler and Guggenheim as follows: "It is impossible by any procedure no matter how idealized to reduce the temperature of any system to the absolute zero in a finite number of operations" (R. H. Fowler and E. A. Guggenheim, Statistical Thermodynamics, Cambridge University Press, 1940, p. 224).

For a detailed discussion of the different formulations of the Third Law see for instance K. Denbigh, The Principles of Chemical Equilibrium, chapter 13.

Walther Nernst presented his theorem December 23, 1905 at a meeting of the Königliche Gesellschaft der Wissenschaften zu Göttingen (Royal Academy of Sciences) [1] and December 20, 1906 at a meeting of the Königlich Preussische Akademie der Wissenschaften (Berlin) [2]. In 1921 the Nobel Prize in Chemistry 1920 was bestowed upon him "in recognition of his work in thermochemistry".


[1] W. Nernst. Ueber die Berechnung chemischer Gleichgewichte aus thermischen Messungen. Nachr. Kgl. Ges. Wiss. Gött., 1906, No. 1, pp. 1 - 40 (facsimile).

[2] W. Nernst. Über die Beziehung zwischen Wärmeentwicklung und maximaler Arbeit bei kondensierten Systemen. Ber. Kgl. Pr. Akad. Wiss., 1906, No. 52, pp. 933 - 940

[3] M. Planck. Vorlesungen über Thermodynamik. Veit, Leipzig, 3rd ed. (1911), ..., 5th ed. (1917)

[4] F. Simon. Fünfundzwanzig Jahre Nernstscher Wärmesatz. Ergebn. exakt. Naturwiss., Vol. 9, pp. 222 - 274 (1930)

[5] R. Haase and W. Jost. 50 Jahre Nernstscher Wärmesatz. Naturwiss. 43 (1956) 481 - 486 (an excellent article on this subject)

1905/1906 - 2005/2006 Centennial

2006-11-09 Lecture at the Georg August University, Göttingen

2006-10-05 Lecture at the PTB, Braunschweig

2005-07-08 Colloquium at the Humboldt University, Berlin

Nernst Equation (1888)

The Nernst equation describes the concentration dependence of the electromotive force of an electrochemical cell, e.g., for a concentration cell (E0 = 0):

E = E0 - (R T / z F) ln (c2 / c1)

(one better uses activities a instead of concentrations c)

This is of great importance, for instance, for nerve conduction, where the potential difference of about 70 mV across the membrane (in the resting state) is the result of correspondingly different concentrations of potassium ions (K+).

Nernst Distribution Law (1891)

If two liquids (or solids) a and b are partially immiscible and if there is a third component i present in both phases which behaves individually as an ideal solute (if it is sufficiently dilute), the ratio of its concentrations x is independent of the individual values of x

xia / xib = const.

Nernst lamp, AEG model A

Nernst lamp, AEG model A
More details ...

Nernst Lamp (Nernst Glower) (1897)

The Nernst glower exhibits a bright emission in the visible spectrum (white light), and it was initially used for ordinary electric illumination. The Nernst lamp (patented 1897) could be operated in ambient air, whereas the carbon filament lamp of Thomas Edison (1879) required a vacuum environment which was quite a disadvantage. In addition, the Nernst lamp was twice as efficient and its light was more natural.

Emil Rathenau who had already (1882) acquired the patent of Edison for the AEG (Allgemeine Elektricitäts-Gesellschaft, the German General Electric Company, which soon became the largest German electrical enterprise) also bought the patent of Nernst (1898). At the World's Fair (World Exhibition) 1900 in Paris where the AEG pavilion was illuminated by 800 Nernst lamps, W. Nernst received the Grand Prix (cf. Phys. Z. 2 (1901) 300).

Nernst lamp, AEG model B

Nernst lamp, AEG model B
More details ...

Nernst lamp, AEG model D

Nernst lamp, AEG model D
More details ...

More on the Nernst lamp ...

Lambda Sensor and Solid Oxide Fuel Cell

Closely related to the Nernst lamp are the Lambda Sensor and solid oxide fuel cells (SOFC) which utilize quite the same solid state electrolyte.

Photo-Induced Chain Reaction (1918)

Walther Nernst suggested a chain reaction mechanism for the photo-induced reaction of chlorine with hydrogen in order to explain the large value of the quantum yield.

Cl-Cl + hv = 2 Cl

Cl + H-H = H-Cl + H

H + Cl-Cl = H-Cl + Cl

Cl + Cl + M = Cl-Cl + M

(M is a third body to carry away excess energy; this may also be the wall.)


W. Nernst. Zur Anwendung des Einsteinschen photochemischen Äquivalentgesetzes. I. Z. Elektrochem. 24 (1918) 335 - 336
Lotte Pusch. Zur Anwendung des Einsteinschen photochemischen Äquivalentgesetzes. II. Z. Elektrochem. 24 (1918) 336 - 339
W. Nernst. Zur Kenntnis der photochemischen Reaktionen. (Nach Versuchen von W. Noddack.) Phys. Z. 21 (1920) 602 - 605

Rudolf Göhring. Über den Mechanismus der photochemischen Chlorknallgasreaktion und die Frage der Abklinggeschwindigkeit des durch das Licht aktivierten Chlors. Z. Elektrochem. 27 (1921) 511 - 518

Ettingshausen-Nernst Effect (1887)

When a conductor or semiconductor is subjected to a temperature gradient and to a magnetic field perpendicular to the temperature gradient, an electric field arises perpendicular to both the temperature gradient and the magnetic field.

Ph.D. thesis of Walther Nernst. Collaboration with Albert von Ettingshausen, Graz, following a suggestion of Ludwig Boltzmann. Continued in Würzburg at the laboratory of Friedrich Kohlrausch.

Remarks: Sometimes the order of the names is reversed, i.e., Nernst-Ettingshausen Effect; frequently the name of A. v. Ettingshausen is misspelled as Ettinghausen. Closely related are the Ettingshausen Effect and the Nernst Effect.

Nernst Law of Electrical Nerve Stimulus Threshold (Reizschwellengesetz) (1899)

[...]; nach unserer Theorie muß also die Stromintensität, die gerade noch einen Reiz ausübt, mit der Quadratwurzel aus der Schwingungszahl direkt proportional ansteigen. (Nernst, 1899)

(The minimum current that causes a stimulation increases proportionally to the square root of the frequency.)

This law was supposed to hold for alternating currents of short duration. It is based on the hypothesis that an electric current causes displacements of ions and related changes in concentrations close to the cell membranes which act as reversible electrodes. A fixed amount of electrical energy is required to cause a nerve stimulation. A closely related law was derived for short pulses of direct currents. (Nernst, 1908)

const. = i × t½

Accommodation (Akkommodation)

Deviations from the law for longer times (the minimum current becomes significantly larger than the law predicts) and the phenomenon that a stimulus can occur even when the circuit is opened are explained by "some kind of accommodation" ("eine Art Akkommodation") (Nernst, 1908).

Subsequently it turned out that Nernst's simple laws were not as general as he had hoped. (Eucken and Miura, 1911)

R. v. Zeynek. Ueber die Erregbarkeit sensibler Nervenendigungen durch Wechselströme. Nachr. Kgl. Ges. Wiss. Gött., 1899, No. 1, pp. 94 - 103 (facsimile)
W. Nernst. Zur Theorie der elektrischen Reizung. Nachr. Kgl. Ges. Wiss. Gött., 1899, No. 1, pp. 104 - 108 (facsimile)
W. Nernst. Zur Theorie des elektrischen Reizes. Pflügers Archiv ges. Physiologie 122 (1908) 275 - 314; DOI: 10.1007/BF01677956
A. Eucken and K. Miura. Zur Nernst'schen Theorie der elektrischen Nervenreizung. Pflügers Archiv ges. Physiologie 140 (1911) 593 - 608; DOI: 10.1007/BF01680585

Bechstein-Siemens-Nernst Piano (Neo-Bechstein) (1930)

The Neo-Bechstein piano was a modified acoustic grand piano using pick-ups to capture naturally produced sound and subject it to electronic modification and amplification. It was invented and designed by Nernst in 1930, together with the companies Bechstein (mechanical parts) and Siemens (electrical parts). The sound of the instrument resembles that of an electric guitar rather than an acoustic piano. About 15 - 20 (or perhaps up to about 150, according to another source) instruments were built of which about five are still in existence. However, only two are still functioning; one is at the Technisches Museum Wien (Vienna Museum of Technology), the other one is at Berlin. Recently, the latter was played in the following performances: 2002-10-26 Kryptonale-8, Berlin; 2003-04-05 Podewil x-tract, Berlin; 2004-02-08 ZKM, Karlsruhe; 2004-03-26 MaerzMusik, Berlin.

Click for large picture

W. Nernst, working on a single string model of the electro-acoustic piano (Neo-Bechstein).

F. W. Winckel. Das Radio-Klavier von Bechstein-Siemens-Nernst. Die Umschau 35 (1931) 840 - 843 (with 2 photographs)

C. Bechstein. Die Resonanz der Presse über den neuen Bechstein-Siemens-Nernst Flügel (with 1 photograph)

Carl Bechstein. Een universeele vleugel (in Dutch, for the exhibition "Klank en beeld", Amsterdam, May 6 - 16, 1932)

Photograph of W. Nernst tuning the Neo-Bechstein (1934) The Scientific Monthly 56 (1942) 84

Neo-Bechstein. Kryptonale-8 (2002)

Peter Donhauser. Elektrische Klangmaschinen. Die Pionierzeit in Deutschland und Österreich. Böhlau, Wien (2007), ISBN 3-205-77593-7

Neo-Bechstein. Radiomuseum (2007)


Bibliography of Walther Nernst and his coworkers

Work in progress. So far about 870 references. Download nernst-bib.pdf (PDF format, 199 KB, 36 pages)


Walther Nernst. Theoretische Chemie vom Standpunkte der Avogadro'schen Regel und der Thermodynamik. Enke, Stuttgart (1893)

W. Nernst and A. Schönflies. Einführung in die mathematische Behandlung der Naturwissenschaften. Kurzgefasstes Lehrbuch der Differential- und Integralrechnung mit besonderer Berücksichtigung der Chemie. München (1895)

F. Pollitzer. Die Berechnung chemischer Affinitäten nach dem Nernstschen Wärmetheorem. Enke, Stuttgart (1912)

W. Nernst. Die theoretischen und experimentellen Grundlagen des neuen Wärmesatzes. Knapp, Halle (1918)


Walther Nernst. Ueber die electromotorischen Kräfte, welche durch den Magnetismus in von einem Wärmestrome durchflossenen Metallplatten geweckt werden. Inauguraldissertation, Universität Würzburg. Annalen der Physik und Chemie N. F. 31 (1887) 760 - 789 (facsimile)

Title page. Click for large picture Walther Nernst. Das Institut für Physikalische Chemie und besonders Elektrochemie an der Universität Göttingen. Festschrift zur Einweihungsfeier am 2. Juni 1896. Also Z. Elektrochemie 2 (1896) 629 - 636

Walther Nernst. Die Ziele der physikalischen Chemie. Inauguration speech 1896-06-02, 18 pp. (facsimile)

Walther Nernst. Die Nernst-Lampe. In: Mutter Erde. Technik, Reisen und nützliche Naturbetrachtung in Haus und Familie. Verlag von W. Spemann, Berlin, 1899. Zweiter Band, pp. 192 - 193. Nernst's elektrische Glühlampe. Ibid., pp. 367 - 369

W. Nernst. Ueber die Bedeutung elektrischer Methoden für die Chemie. Verh. Ges. Dt. Naturf. u. Ä. 73/1 (1901) 83 - 99

Friedrich Dolezalek. Das Institut für physikalische Chemie. Festschrift (1906)

W. Nernst. Ueber die Berechnung chemischer Gleichgewichte aus thermischen Messungen. Nachr. Kgl. Ges. Wiss. Gött., 1906, No. 1, pp. 1 - 40 (facsimile).

W. Nernst. Die Entwicklung der allgemeinen und physikalischen Chemie. Ber. Dt. Chem. Ges. 40 (1907) 4617 - 4626

W. Nernst and J. Sand. Das Physikalisch-Chemische Institut an der Universität Berlin. Z. Elektrochemie 15 (1909) 229 - 232
Ground-plan (590 KB)

W. Nernst and J. Sand. Das physikalisch-chemische Institut. In: Max Lenz, Geschichte der Königlichen Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität zu Berlin, Verlag der Buchhandlung des Waisenhauses, Halle (1910)

Walther Nernst. Zum Gültigkeitsbereich der Naturgesetze. Rede zum Antritt des Rektorates der Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität in Berlin am 15. Oktober 1921

Walther Nernst. Ueber das Auftreten neuer Sterne. Rede zur Gedächtnisfeier des Stifters der Berliner Universität König Friedrich Wilhelms III in Berlin am 3. August 1922


Robert A. Millikan. Walther Nernst, a great physicist, passes. The Scientific Monthly 54 (1942) 84 - 86

Albert Einstein. The work and personality of Walther Nernst. The Scientific Monthly 54 (1942) 195 - 196


Günther Bugge. Walter Nernst. Zum 50. Geburtstag am 25. Juni [1914]. Reclams Universum-Jahrbuch 1914, Nr. 23, pp. 257 - 259

Werner Haberditzl. Walther Nernst. In: Gerhard Harig (ed.). Von Adam Ries bis Max Planck. 25 große deutsche Mathematiker und Naturwissenschaftler. VEB Verlag Enzyklopädie, Leipzig, 1961. 2nd ed., 1962. pp. 118 - 122.
Also in: Gerhard Harig (ed.). Deutsche Forscher aus sechs Jahrhunderten. Lebensbilder von Ärzten, Naturwissenschaftlern und Technikern. VEB Bibliographisches Institut, Leipzig, 1965. pp. 373 - 377

Kurt Mendelssohn. The world of Walther Nernst. The rise and fall of german science. Macmillan (1973)
German translation: Walther Nernst und seine Zeit. Aufstieg und Niedergang der deutschen Naturwissenschaften (1976)

Hans-Georg Bartel. Walther Nernst. BSB B. G. Teubner Verlagsgesellschaft, Leipzig (1989)

Diana Kormos Barkan. Walther Nernst and the Transition to Modern Physical Science. Cambridge University Press (1998)

Hans-Georg Bartel and Rudolf P. Huebener. Walther Nernst: Pioneer of Physics and of Chemistry. World Scientific, Singapore (2007)


Alwin Mittasch. Geschichte der Ammoniaksynthese. Verlag Chemie, Weinheim (1951)

Lothar Suhling. Walther Nernst und die Ammoniaksynthese nach Haber und Bosch. In: Helmuth Albrecht (ed.). Naturwissenschaft und Technik in der Geschichte. GNT-Verlag, Stuttgart (1993)


Walther Nernst. Vita. (Transcription of W. Nernst's curriculum vitae of 1890-02-06, written by hand in Latin when he applied for a position at Göttingen university)

Walther Nernst and Lotte Warburg. Zwischen Raum und Zeit. (1912) (A relativistic romance)

Züs Colonna (pseudonym of Lotte Warburg). Walther Nernst. (1941?) (A satirical obituary)

Picture Gallery

Kohlrausch and coworkers, Würzburg 1887

Boltzmann and coworkers, Graz 1887

The Göttingen physicochemical institute founded by Nernst in 1895

W. Nernst, A. Coehn and coworkers 1903

Solvay Congress, Brussels 1911

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c. 1900

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Photograph by Nicola Perscheid 1906.
Photogravure published by
Photographische Gesellschaft Berlin

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c. 1924
Z. phys. Chem. 110 (1924)

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Retired, c. 1934
Photograph by his daughter Angela Hahn
Naturwiss. 22 (1934) 437-439

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W. Nernst attending a colloquium
Drawing by Walther Adolf Roth 1905 or 1906
cf. Naturwiss. 36 (1949) 225-229

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Painting by Max Liebermann 1912
(reproduction by Frisch)
signed by W. Nernst

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Etching by Hermann Struck 1921
No. 1/50
signed by the artist and by W. Nernst

Autograph: Letter (envelope - front, back) of W. Nernst to H. v. Euler-Chelpin, Stockholm, 1922-01-07

Photograph with a motto (Fortes fortuna adjuvat) 1924

Autograph with a motto (Numquam retrorsum!) 1931

Autograph: Letter of W. Nernst to I. Langmuir 1933-01-17 (congratulation to Nobel prize)

Walther Nernst and his cars

Walther Nernst on stamps (Germany 1950, Sweden 1980)

Related Persons

Abegg, Richard (1864 - 1910) Assistant of Nernst at Göttingen, professor at Breslau

Abel, Emil ( - ) Student of Nernst. Founder of physics in Argentina (university of La Plata)

Althoff, Friedrich (1839 - 1908) Omnipotent promoter of science at the Prussian Ministry of Culture

Arrhenius, Svante (1859 - 1927) Chemist

Auer von Welsbach, Carl (1858 - 1929) Inventor

Avogadro, Amedeo (1776 - 1856)

Bodenstein, Max (1871 - 1942) Professor in Berlin, Hannover and again Berlin (successor of Nernst)

Boltzmann, Ludwig (1844 - 1906) Teacher of Nernst at Graz

Coehn, Alfred (1863 - 1938) Coworker of Nernst at Göttingen

Cremer, Erika (1900 - 1996) Student of Nernst and Bodenstein

Danneel, Heinrich (1867 - 1942) Student of Nernst at Göttingen

Dolezalek, Friedrich (1873 - 1920) Student of Nernst at Göttingen, professor at Göttingen and Charlottenburg

Drude, Paul (1863 - 1906) Coworker of Nernst at Göttingen, professor at Berlin

Edison, Thomas Alva (1847 - 1931) Electrician

Einstein, Albert (1879- 1955) Physicist

von Ettingshausen, Albert (1850 - 1932) Teacher of Nernst at Graz

Eucken, Arnold (1884 - 1950) Student of Nernst, professor at Breslau and Göttingen

v. Euler-Chelpin, Hans (1873 - 1964) Post-doc with Nernst at Göttingen

Haber, Fritz (1868 - 1934) Professor at Karlsruhe, director KWI

von Helmholtz, Hermann (1821 - 1894) President PTR 1887 - 1894

Kohlrausch, Friedrich (1840 - 1910) Teacher of Nernst at Würzburg. President PTR 1895 - 1905

Langmuir, Irving (1881 - 1957) Student of Nernst at Göttingen

von Laue, Max (1879 - 1960) Physicist

Lindemann, Charles (1884 - ?) Student of Nernst at Berlin

Lindemann, Frederick Alexander (1886 - 1957) (Viscount Cherwell) Student of Nernst at Berlin

Loeb, Morris (1863 - 1912) Student of Ostwald and coworker of Nernst. Founder of physical chemistry in the USA

Lohmeyer, Emma (1871 - 1949) Wife of W. Nernst

Maltby, Margaret E. (1860 - 1944) Student of Nernst at Göttingen

Mendelssohn, Kurt (1906 - 1980) Student of Nernst at Berlin. Biographer

Meyer, Victor (1848 - 1893) Professor of chemistry at Göttingen and Heidelberg

Millikan, Robert A. (1868 - 1953) Post-doc with Nernst at Göttingen

Ostwald, Wilhelm (1853 - 1932) Founder of physical chemistry, professor at Dorpat and Leipzig, teacher of Nernst

Planck, Max (1858 - 1947) Physicist

Rathenau, Emil (1838 - 1915) Director AEG

Rathenau, Walther (1867 - 1922) Politician

Riecke, Eduard (1845 - 1915) Professor of physics at Göttingen

Riesenfeld, Ernst Hermann (1877 - 1957) Student of Nernst

Roloff, Max (1871 - ?) Student of Nernst at Göttingen

Rubens, Heinrich (1865 - 1922) Predecessor of Nernst

Schönflies, Arthur Moritz (1853 - 1928) Professor at Göttingen and Königsberg

Simon, Franz (1893 - 1956) PhD student and coworker of Nernst; successor of Eucken at Breslau

Solvay, Ernest (1838 - 1923) Industrialist

Stark, Johannes (1874 - 1957) Opponent of Nernst. Director PTR 1933 - 1939

Tammann, Gustav (1861 - 1938) Coworker of Nernst, professor at Göttingen

Warburg, Emil (1846 - 1931) President PTR 1905 - 1922

Warburg, Lotte (1884 - 1948) (Züs Colonna) Writer

von Wartenberg, Hans (1880 - 1960) Coworker of Nernst at Göttingen and Berlin, professor at Danzig and Göttingen

Wehnelt, Arthur (1871 - 1944) Successor of Nernst

Westinghouse, George (1846 - 1914) Industrialist

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