Arrhenius, Svante August (1859–1927)

Svante Arrhenius

Svante Arrhenius was a Swedish physical chemist, winner of the 1903 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, famous for his research on electrolytes. He also did work on reaction rates and biochemistry, and was the first to present a detailed scientific hypothesis of panspermia. In this, he argued that life arrived on Earth in the form of microscopic spores that had been propelled across interstellar space by the radiation pressure of star light. His seminal 1903 paper1 on the subject was in response to "the failure of repeated attempts made by eminent biologists to discover a single case of spontaneous generation of life".2 In its fully-developed form, Arrhenius's hypothesis reached a wide audience through his book Worlds in the Making3 (1908, first published as Varldarnas utveckling in Sweden in 1906).


Arrhenius was optimistic that, subject to the low temperatures in space, spores would be able to remain viable for very long periods. As for the effect of solar radiation, although Arrhenius was aware of the potentially lethal effect of ultraviolet light on living cells, he insisted that "All the botanists that I have been able to consult are of the opinion that we can by no means assert with certainty that spores would be killed by the light rays in wandering through infinite space." His support for panspermia tied in with his fundamental belief that "all organisms in the universe are related and the process of evolution is everywhere the same." He thought life on other worlds might be common, though he opposed Lowell's claims about martian canals. In The Destinies of Stars4 (1918), he presented a Carboniferous swamp version of Venus which remained popular for many years.



1. Arrhenius, S. "The Propagation of Life in Space," Die Umschau, 7, 481 (1903). Reprinted in Donald Goldsmith, ed., The Quest for Extraterrestrial Life, q.v.
2. Arrhenius, S. "Panspermy: The Transmission of Life from Star to Star," Scientific American, 196, 196 (1907).
3. Arrhenius, Svante. Worlds in the Making: The Evolution of the Universe. New York: Harper & Row (1908).
4. Arrhenius, Svante. The Destinies of Stars, trans, by J. E. Fries. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons (1918).