The Lars Onsager
Norwegian University of Science and Technology
Lars Onsager, Norwegian-American chemist and physicist, was born in
Oslo on November 27th 1903 to Erling Onsager, a barrister, and Ingrid,
née Kirkeby. In 1933 Lars Onsager married the Austrian-born Margarethe
Arledter. They had four children, Erling Fredrick, Inger Marie, Hans Tanberg
and Christian Carl.
Onsager received the Ch.E. degree from the Norwegian Institute of Technology
(Norges Tekniske Höiskole) in 1925. He was Peter Debye's assistant
in Zürich until 1928, when he went to Johns Hopkins University. He
was then instructor in chemistry at Brown University from 1928 to 1933.
He became a Stirling Fellow at Yale University in 1933, and received a
Ph.D. from Yale in 1935. He was appointed assistant professor there in
1934, associate professor in 1940, and J. Willard Gibbs Professor of Theoretical
Chemistry in 1945. From 1972 to 1976, he was Distinguished University Professor
at the University of Miami, Coral Gables. He died on October 5th 1976.
In 1968 Onsager was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, for his fundamental
contributions to irreversible thermodynamics. The so-called Onsager reciprocal
relations that he derived have been of tremendous importance in a wide
range of applications. In addition to the theory of irreversible processes,
Onsager did pioneer work in several other fields of chemistry and physics.
The first articles he published concerned the thermodynamics and kinetics
of electrolytes, topics to which he made important contributions throughout
his scientific career.
In 1944 he baffled the scientific world with the exact solution of the
two-dimensional Ising model, a model of a ferromagnet. The solution was
a virtuosic mathematical feat. It was also
important from a physical point of view, and started a development that
led to a deeper understanding of phase transitions and critical points.
From about 1940 Onsager was very interested in low-temperature physics.
He suggested the quantization of vortices in liquid helium, and showed
in 1952 how information about the distribution of electrons could be extracted
from the de Haas-van Alphen effect.
In addition to the Nobel Prize, Onsager received many honours, medals
and prizes, including honorary degrees from Harvard University, Norges
Tekniske Høgskole, Brown University, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute,
Rheinisch-Westfälische Technische Hochschule, University of Chicago,
Ohio State University, University of Cambridge and University of Oxford.
General reference: The Collected Works of Lars Onsager (with commentary).
Eds. P.C. Hemmer, H. Holden and S. Kjelstrup Ratkje (World Scientific,
Onsager's desk was moved from his home in the U.S. to Trondheim
and is now placed at Lerkendal gård.
Text written by Monica Aase,
Norwegian University of Science and Technology NTNU Library, 1999.