A Brill Calendar: March 8
Van der Waals: A Life
Few superb intellects encountered more obstacles in their growth than that of Johannes Diederik van der Waals (Leyden, November 23 1837 – Amsterdam, March 8 1923).
The recipient of the Nobel Prize for Physics for 1910 entered adulthood as teacher on an elementary school. The upward social and cultural mobility within that profession in the second half of the 19th century in The Netherlands is astounding; and perhaps unique.
Formalities in the national educational admission protocols lengthened Van der Waals’s academic study. But when he at last conquered his doctoral degree in 1873 – at 35 years of age – his Leyden thesis earned him almost instantaneously world-wide fame. The greatest theoretical physicist of his age, James Clark Maxwell (1831 – 1879), discussed his paper in admiration and wrote: “There can be no doubt that his name will soon be among the foremost in molecular science”, while adding, in an address to his monoglot country-men: “It has certainly directed the attention of more than one inquirer to the study of the Low-Dutch language [sic, WD] in which it is written.”
Eventually, Van der Waals opened up a new domain of technology in physics: liquefaction of gasses. The exact formula behind this new field, the ‘Law of Corresponding States’, dates from 1881; and is called the ‘Van der Waals Equation’. It has been said that all human progress results from the courage to say ‘No’. This superb physicist said ‘No’ to the traditional assumption that gas molecules have zero volume and do not attract one another.
In the history of physics in Leyden University – both theoretical and applied – it is seldom that the consistency of a tradition in research is realized more convincingly than when Professor Heike Kamerlingh Onnes turned the Helium into a liquid in 1908 and discovered electrical superconductivity three years later; while Van der Waals still lived.