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Johannes Diderik van der Waals (23 November 1837 – 8 March 1923) was a Dutch physicist and thermodynamicist famous for his work on an equation of state for gases and liquids.


Early years

Van der Waals was born in Leidenmarker, Netherlandsmarker, to Jacobus van der Waals and Elisabeth van den Burg. He became a school teacher, and later was allowed to study at the university, in spite of his lack of education in the field of classical languages. He studied from 1862 to 1865, earning degrees in mathematics and physics. He married Anna Magdalena Smit in 1864, and the couple had three daughters (Anne Madeleine, Jacqueline Elisabeth (poet), Johanna Diderica) and one son, the physicist Johannes Diderik, Jr. Van der Waals' nephew Peter van der Waals was a cabinet maker and a leading figure in the Sapperton, Gloucestershiremarker school of the Arts and Crafts movement.


In 1866, van der Waals became director of a secondary school in The Haguemarker. He obtained a doctorate in Leiden in 1873 under Pieter Rijke, and in 1876 was appointed the first professor of physics at the newly established University of Amsterdammarker.

Van der Waals' doctoral thesis was entitled Over de Continuïteit van den Gas- en Vloeistoftoestand (On the continuity of the gas and liquid state). In this thesis he derived the equation of state bearing his name. This work gave a model in which the liquid and the gas phase of a substance merge into each other in a continuous manner. It shows that the two phases are of the same nature. In deriving his equation of state van der Waals assumed not only the existence of molecules (which in physics was disputed at the time), but also that they are of finite size and attract each other. Since he was one of the first to postulate an intermolecular force, however rudimentary, such a force is now sometimes called a van der Waals force.

A second great discovery of van der Waals was published in 1880: The Law of Corresponding States. This law shows, that after scaling temperature, pressure, and volume by their respective critical values, a general form of the equation of state is obtained which is applicable to all substances. This law served as a guide during the experiments that led to the liquefaction of helium by Heike Kamerlingh Onnes.

Van der Waals found his incentive for his life's work after reading the 1857 treatise by Rudolf Clausius entitled Über die Art der Bewegung welche wir Wärme nennen (On the Kind of Motion we Call Heat). Van der Waals was later greatly influenced by the writings of James Clerk Maxwell, Ludwig Boltzmann, and Willard Gibbs. For his work, van der Waals won the 1910 Nobel Prize in physics.

Personal life

Van der Waals died in Amsterdammarker on 8 March 1923, one year after his daughter Jacqueline had died.

See also


Further reading

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