Johannes Diderik van der Waals

The Dutch physicist Johannes Diderik van der Waals (1837-1923) did pioneering studies on the equation of state of liquids and gases, for which he received the Nobel Prize for physics in 1910.

Johannes van der Waals was born on Nov. 23, 1837, in Leiden, the son of Jacobus van der Waals and Elizabeth van den Burg. His life is a classic illustration of the fact that lack of proper educational opportunities is not an insurmountable obstacle to greatness in science, provided one's potential is matched by one's determination. Following the completion of his elementary and secondary education, he taught elementary school in Leiden with his mind fixed on much higher goals. His thirst for knowledge had at first to be satisfied with reading in his spare time, but during the years 1862-1865 he followed courses at the University of Leiden and obtained the certification to teach mathematics and physics in high schools. In 1864 he married Anna Magdalena Smit, who soon died, leaving him with four small children.

While Van der Waals served as director of a high school in The Hague, a new law removed classical languages from the list of compulsory courses for science students at universities, and he passed in 1873 the examinations for doctor's degree in physics. His dissertation, On the Continuity of the Gaseous and Liquid States, revealed him at one stroke as a most original master of physics. In fact James Clerk Maxwell remarked, when he learned of the dissertation's contents, "The name of Van der Waals will soon be among the foremost in molecular science."

Van der Waals argued that R. J. E. Clausius's derivation of Robert Boyle's gas law from statistical mechanics had to be supplemented by new considerations if it was to hold for real gases and their transformation into liquids. The new consideration was the "principle of continuity, " by which Van der Waals meant that from the viewpoint of statistical mechanics there could be no basic difference between the gaseous and the liquid states. In addition he noted the need for considering two factors, the volume of molecules and their mutual attraction. He succeeded in relating these two factors to the critical temperature, pressure, and volume, or the critical point. It therefore followed that the equation of state could be expressed in a form independent of any particular gas or liquid.

This in turn led to the most momentous part of Van der Waals's research, the law of corresponding states, formulated in 1880. According to it, the whole range of behavior of a substance can be predicted once its critical point has been ascertained. This result played a crucial role in the efforts leading to the liquefaction of hydrogen (1898) and of helium (1908). His other principal achievement consisted in the combination of the law of corresponding states with the second law of thermodynamics, which he outlined in 1890 in his first treatise on the theory of binary solutions.

In 1876 Van der Waals became the first professor of physics at the newly established University of Amsterdam. His son, Johannes Diderik, Jr., was the next occupant of the chair. Van der Waals died in Amsterdam on March 8, 1923.


Further Reading on Johannes Diderik van der Waals

Biographical information on Van der Waals and accounts of his work are in N. de V. Heathcote, Nobel Prize Winners in Physics, 1901-1950 (1953), and Nobel Foundation, Nobel Lectures: Physics, 1901-1921 (1967).