William Francis Giauque and the Absolute Zero

William Francis Giauque

William Francis Giauque

On May 12, 1895, American chemist and Nobel laureate William Francis Giauque was born. Giauque received the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1949 for his “achievements in the field of chemical thermodynamics and especially his work on the behavior of matter at very low temperatures and his closely allied studies of entropy.”

William Francis Giauque attended the Niagara Falls Collegiate Institute and after graduating he decided to pursue a career working for power plants at Niagara Falls. At Hooker Electro-Chemical Company, Giauque started out and he quickly made the decision to become a chemical engineer. Giauque later continued his education at the College of Chemistry of the University of California, Berkeley. There, Giauque earned his bachelor’s degree in 1920. Two years later, Giauque received his doctorate degree. In 1922, William Francis Giauque was appointed instructor of chemistry at Berkeley and became full professor in 1934.

Already during his time as Ph.D. student, Giauque became interested in the third law of thermodynamics. He performed experimental studied under the supervision of Professor George Ernest Gibson and compared the relative entropies of glycerine crystals and glass. The principal objective of his researches was to demonstrate through range of appropriate tests that the third law of thermodynamics is a basic natural law. In 1926, he proposed a method for observing temperatures below one kelvin.

William Francis Giauque further developed a magnetic refrigeration device, getting closer to absolute zero than many scientists had thought possible. This work by Giauque caused a variety of improvements including stronger steel and better gasoline. The scientist further provided entropy determinations from low temperature measurements, particularly on condensed gases. The entropies and other thermodynamic properties of many gases were also determined for instance from quantum statistics and molecular energy levels available from band spectra. Giauque’s research of the entropy of oxygen along with Dr. Herrick L. Johnston resulted in the discovery of oxygen isotopes 17 and 18 in the Earth’s atmosphere. It further demonstrated that back then, physicists and chemists had been using different scales of atomic weight for years without noticing.

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