Biography of Heike Kamerlingh Onnes


Heike Kamerlingh Onnes was Dutch winner of the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1913 for his work on low-temperature physics and his production of liquidhelium.

He discovered superconductivity, the almost total lack of electrical resistance in certain materials when cooled to a temperature near absolute zero. Heike Kamerlingh Onnes was born on September 21, 1853, at Groningen, The Netherlands. His father, Harm Kamerlingh Onnes, was the owner of a brickworks near Groningen; his mother was Anna Gerdina Coers of Arnhem, the daughter of an architect.

After spending the allotted time at the “Hoogere Burgerschool” in his native town (secondary school without classical languages), the director of which was the later Professor of Chemistry at Leyden J.M. van Bemmelen, he received supplementary teaching in Greek and Latin. In 1870 he entered the University of Groningen, obtained his “candidaats” degree (approx. B.Sc.) the following year, and then went to Heidelberg University as a student of the German physicists Robert Bunsen and Gustav Kirchhoff from October 1871 until April 1873.

Kamerlingh Onnes’ talents for solving scientific problems was already apparent in 1871, when at the age of 18 he was awarded a Gold Medal for a competition sponsored by the Natural Sciences Faculty of the University of Utrecht, followed the next year by a Silver Medal for a similar event at the University of Groningen. When working with Kirchhoff he also won the “Seminarpreis”, entitling him to occupy one of the two existing assistantships under Kirchhoff.

Thereafter he returned to Groningen, where he passed his “doctoraal”examination (approx. M.Sc.) in 1878 and obtained the doctor’s degree in 1879 with a remarkable thesis “Nieuwe bewijzen voor de aswenteling der aarde” (New proofs of the rotation of the earth). In his doctoral thesis, he gave both theoretical and experimental proofs that Foucault’s well-known pendulum experiment should be considered as a special case of a large group of phenomena which can be used to prove the rotation of the Earth.

Meanwhile in 1878 he had become assistant at the Polytechnicum (Polytechnic School) at Delft, working under Bosscha, in whose place he also lectured in 1881 and 1882, during which time he was in close contact with van der Waals, professor of physics in Amsterdam. In 1881 he published a paper Algemeene theorie der vloeistoffen (General theory of liquids), which dealt with the kinetic theory of the liquid state, approaching Van der Waals’ law of corresponding states from a mechanistic point of view.

This work can be considered as the beginning of his life-long investigations into the properties of matter at low temperatures. In his inaugural address De beteekenis van het quantitatief onderzoek in de natnurkunde (The importance of quantitative research in physics) he arrived at his well-known motto “Door meten tot weten” (Knowledge through measurement), an appreciation of the value of measurements which concerned him throughout his scientific career.

In 1882 he was appointed Professor of Experimental Physics and Meteorology at Leyden University, in succession to P.L. Rijke. After his appointment to the Physics Chair at Leyden, Kamerlingh Onnes reorganized the Physical Laboratory (now known as the Kamerlingh Onnes Laboratory) in a way to suit his own programme.

His researches were mainly based on the theories of his two great compatriots J.D. van der Waals and H.A. Lorentz. In particular he had in mind the establishment of a cryogenic laboratory which would enable him to verify Van der Waals’ law of corresponding states over a large range of temperatures. From 1895 to 1906 he concentrated on perfectingcryogenic experimental techniques and studied metals and fluids at low temperatures.

An early picture of the Onnes Laboratory

To liquefy the gas using the Joule-Thomson effect, one compresses it and cools it below the inversion temperature. If now the gas is allowed to expand, further cooling occurs, resulting in the liquefaction of some of the gas. For this purpose in Leiden he built a cryogenic laboratory. In 1892 his apparatus for the liquefaction of air in large quantities was ready.

Subsequently he built a large hydrogen liquefier in 1906 and succeeded with the liquefaction of helium, using evaporating liquid hydrogen, on the 10th of July in 1908. He tells us that it was a wonderful moment when the liquid was seen for the first time and he was overjoyed when he could show liquid helium to his friend van derWaals, whose theory guided him in the liquefaction up to the very end.

Bringing the temperature of the helium down to 0.9 K, he reached the nearest approach to absolute zero then achieved, thus justifying the saying that the coldest spot on earth was situated at Leyden. It was on account of these low-temperature studies that he was awarded the Nobel Prize in physics in 1913 “for his investigations on the properties of matter at low temperatures which led, inter alia, to the production of liquidhelium.” Later, his pupils Willem Hendrik Keesom and W.J. de Haas (Lorentz’ son-in-law) conducted experiments in the same laboratory which led them still closer to absolute zero and allowed them to solidify helium in 1926.

The physics laboratory in Leiden became the “coldest place on earth” under the direction of Heike Kamerlingh Onnes. Helium was first liquefied there in 1908 and three years later mercury became the first metal to be cooled to the superconducting state. This painting (by Heike’s nephew Harm) depicts an artistic view of the apparatus.

Other investigations in his laboratory which gradually gained in importance and international fame, included thermodynamics, the radioactivity law, and observations on optical, magnetic and electrical phenomena, such as the study of fluorescence and phosphorescence, the magnetic rotation of the polarization plane, absorption spectra of crystals in the magnetic field; also the Hall effect, dielectric constants, and especially the resistance of metals.

Kamerlingh Onnes was interested in investigating the electrical properties of pure metals with no impurities in this newly available region of low temperatures. The question was: will the resistance increase, or decrease or remain constant when cooling the samples? He decided to work with mercury which can be repeatedly distilled at room temperature in order to obtain a pure sample.

What happened was completely unpredictable: Onnes found (1911) that when cooling the pure mercury tubes to a temperature of 4.2 K the resistance suddenly dropped to zero. He termed this phenomenon “superconductivity.” He showed similar results in some other metals, for instance in tin and lead and in 1914 he established a permanent current, or what he called a “persistent supercurrent”, in a superconducting coil of lead.

His systematic researches on superconductivity (begun in 1911) were of extreme importance because of their bearing on the theory of electrical conduction in solids. It was 46 years before John Bardeen, Leon N. Cooper and J. Robert Schrieffer established the theoretical foundations that best explained superconductivity.

Heike Kamerlingh Onnes in the laboratory with the helium ‘liquefactor’

The results of Kamerlingh Onnes’ investigations were published in the Proceedings of the Royal Academy of Sciences of Amsterdam and also in the Communications from the Physical Laboratory at Leyden. Many foreignscientists came to Leyden to work in his laboratory for shorter or longer periods. The laboratory gained additional fame throughout the world through the training school for instrument-makers and glass-blowers housed in it, founded by Kamerlingh Onnes in 1901.

Heike Kamerlingh Onnes (far right) shows his helium liquefactor to three theoretical physicists: Niels Bohr (visiting from Kopenhagen), Hendrik Lorentz, and Paul Ehrenfest (far left).

Heike Kamerlingh Onnes is also known for snubbing Albert Einstein. In 1901, Einstein sent a letter to Kamerlingh Onnes applying for a position at the University of Leiden. But, Kamerlingh Onnes never responded to Einstein’s letter. However, later they had quite friendly relations.

Einstein, Ehrenfest, Langevin, Kammerling-Onnes and Pierre Weiss (from left to right)

Prof. Heike Kamerlingh Onnes and his wife with some colleages among them their friend Albert Einstein (standing behind Mrs. Kamerlingh Onnes), ca. 1920.

At the early age of 30, Kamerlingh Onnes was appointed a member of the Royal Academy of Sciences of Amsterdam. He was one of the founders of the Association (now Institut) International du Froid. He was a Commander in the Order of the Netherlands Lion, the Order of Orange-Nassau of the Netherlands, the Order of St. Olaf of Norway, and the Order of Polonia Restituta of Poland.

He held an honorary doctorate of the University of Berlin, and was awarded the Matteucci Medal, the Rumford Medal, the Baumgarten Preis and the Franklin Medal. He was Member of the Society of Friends of Science in Moscow, and of the Academies of Sciences in Copenhagen, Uppsala, Turin, Vienna, Gottingen and Halle; Foreign Associate of the Academie des Sciences of Paris; Foreign Member of the Accademia dei Lincei of Rome and the Royal Society of London; and Honorary Member of the Physical Society of Stockholm, the Societe Helvetique des Sciences Naturelles, the Royal Institution of London, the Sociedad Espanola da Fisica y Qumica of Madrid, and the Franklin Institute of Philadelphia.

Outside his scientific work, Kamerlingh Onnes’ favourite recreations were his family life and helpfulness to those who needed it. Although his work was his hobby, he was far from being a pompous scholar. A man of great personal charm and philanthropic humanity, he was very active during and after the First World War in smoothing out political differences between scientists and in succouring starving children in countries suffering from food shortage.

In 1887 he married Maria Adriana Wilhelmina Elisabeth Bijleveld, who was a great help to him in these activities and who created a home widely known for its hospitality. They had one son, Albert, who became a high-ranking civil servant at The Hague.

Kamerlingh Onnes’ health had always been somewhat delicate, and, after a short illness, he died at Leyden on February 21, 1926.

The instruments Onnes devised for his experiments can still be seen at the Boerhave museum in Leiden.

Postal stamps memorizing Heike Kamerlingh Onnes

A stamp from Sweden, where Heike Kamerlingh Onnes is shown on the right together with A. Werner (1886-1919). This stamp was designed by L. Soderberg and engraved by A. Wallhorn and issued December 10th 1973. Values: 65 ore, 70 ore, 1 kr.

A stamp from The Netherlands, 1936 for the Cultural and Social Relief Fund, picturing Heike Kamerlingh Onnes, issued from May 1st 1936 till July 15th 1936, designer S.L. Hartz.


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