Childhood & Early Life
Heike Kamerlingh Onnes was born on September 21, 1853, at Groningen, Netherlands. His father, Harm Kamerlingh Onnes, owned a bricklaying business near Groningen. His mother, Anna Gerdina Coers, was the daughter of an architect from Arnhem.
Heike Onnes had two siblings. His brother, Menso Kamerlingh Onnes, grew up to be a fairly well known painter while his sister, Jenny, married Floris Verster, another famous painter.
Onnes received his secondary education at Hoogere Burgerschool and passed out from there in 1870. Since the school did not teach classical languages, he took supplementary tuition in Greek and Latin.
Subsequently, he enrolled at the University of Groningen, receiving his ‘candidaats’ degree in 1871. Later in October, he enrolled at the University of Heidelberg, studying under Robert Bunsen and Gustav Kirchhoff.
Sometime now, he also started his doctoral thesis under Gustav Kirchhoff, but returned to the University of Groningen in April 1873. There he continued the same work under R. A. Mees.
In June 1878, he received a degree equivalent to M.S. On April 10, 1879, he defended his dissertation and became doctorate magna cum laude. His dissertation paper was titled ‘Nieuwe bewijzen voor de aswenteling der aarde’ (New proofs of the rotation of the earth).
Continue Reading Below
You May Like
In 1878, a year before he received his doctoral degree, Heike Kamerlingh Onnes began his career as an assistant to Johannes Bosscha, the director of the Polytechnicum in Delft. Later from 1881 to 1882, he worked as a lecturer in place of Bosscha, concurrently, carrying out his own research work.
Also in 1881, he came in contact with van der Waals, Professor of Physics at Amsterdam, and one of the promoters of corpuscular theory. Onnes was highly influenced by him.
Subsequently, he published his first paper on the properties of matter at low temperatures. Titled, ‘Algemeene theorie der vloeistoffen’ (General theory of liquids), it dealt with the kinetic theory of the liquid state.
In April 1882, Onnes was appointed as the Professor of Experimental Physics and Meteorology in the University of Leiden. In his inaugural address, ‘De beteekenis van het quantitatief onderzoek in de natnurkunde’ (The importance of quantitative research in physics), he clearly spelled the motto of his life ‘Door meten tot weten’ (Knowledge through measurement).
On being appointed as a Professor of Experimental Physics, Onnes decided to provide experimental support to van der Waals’s theory on the behavior of gases. However, to prove that experimentally, Onnes had to build an apparatus that would be able to liquefy air in large quantity.
In 1894, Onnes was finally successful in establishing a cryogenic laboratory at the University of Leiden. From 1895 to 1906, he concentrated on perfecting cryogenic experimental techniques and studied metals and fluids at low temperatures. At this point, his researches followed two distinct lines.
On the one hand, he followed the theories of van der Waals concerning equation of state, viscosity, capillarity etc and on the other hand, he also kept in mind the theoretical work of Hendrik Lorentz concerning the magneto-rotation of the plane of polarization, Kerr Effect, Hall Effect etc.
In 1901, he established a glass-blowing school at the laboratory, which earned it international recognition.
In 1906, he was able to build an improved hydrogen-liquefaction machine. Sometime now, he also coined the term ‘Enthalpy’, which is a measurement of energy in a thermodynamic system.
Continue Reading Below
On 10 July 1908, Onnes was finally able to liquefy a small quantity of helium. Using the Joule-Thomson effect, he was able to bring down the temperature of the gas down to 0. 9° K. It was the lowest temperature to be reached at that time. The success led to further research in this field.
However, Onnes now gave up his quest for reaching lower and lower temperature. Instead, he now began studying the properties of liquid helium. Therefore, he spent the next three years developing apparatus that would be able to store the liquid helium and study them further.
Sometime now, he also tried to solidify helium. Although he failed in this mission, his student and successor at the laboratory, Willem Hendrik Keesom, accomplished it in 1926.
Nonetheless, his work on helium set the stage for his next major discovery. By now, it had already been established that resistance dropped as a metal was cooled. However, scientists were not sure what would happen if the temperature neared absolute zero. Onnes now set out to solve the riddle.
In spring of 1911, he began his studies on electrical conductivity of metals in low temperature. Working with mercury, he established that in some substances, electrical resistance begins to diminish at very low temperatures and vanishes after certain stage.
In 1913, he named the phenomenon as ‘Supraconductivity’. Later he changed the term to ‘Superconductivity. Onnes carried on systematic researches on superconductivity, which had far reaching effect on the theory of electrical conduction in solids.
At the same time, he continued guiding number of doctoral students, many of whom later became established scientists. He retired in 1923.
Apart from his laboratory research works, Onnes was also involved in the application of low temperature in day to day matters such as refrigerator, food preservation and production of ice. Because of his enthusiasm about low temperature, he was lovingly called ‘Gentleman of Zero’.
Personal Life & Legacy
In 1887, Onnes married Maria Adriana Wilhelmina Elisabeth Bijleveld. The couple had a son Albert Kamerlingh Onnes, who later became a very high ranking civil servant at The Hague. Their home was well known for the hospitality it offered.
Onnes was a great scientist, but not a workaholic. He had a very loving nature and aided by his wife, he took part in many humanitarian activities, such as ironing out political differences between scientists during the First World War and helping starving children in poorer countries with food shortage.
He suffered from poor health and died at Leyden on February 21, 1926 after a short illness.