Gilbert Newton Lewis (1875-1946) was one of the most important American scientists of the 20th century. His work produced a structural revolution in chemical studies, thanks to the many contributions he made throughout his life to the development of science.
Among the contributions of this physicochemical, the formula that bears his name stands out, with which the pairs of electrons alone are graphically represented. Lewis’s research work was very extensive, although his fame was basically due to the theory of chemical bonds and the definition of acid-base formulated in 1923.
Lewis came to have great influence in the scientific and academic world of the United States, especially at Harvard University, where he trained and taught. His work for the US Army during World War I earned him the highest recognition and highest honors.
He trained at the universities of Nebraska, Harvard, Leipzig and Göttingen in Germany. He worked at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Harvard University and the University of California, where he died while working.
Throughout his life he received countless recognitions and awards, including several honorary doctorates from the universities of Chicago, Madrid, Liverpool, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. He was an honorary member of various scientific institutions in England, India, Sweden, Denmark, and the United States.
Birth and early years
Gilbert Newton Lewis was born in Weymouth, Massachusetts, on October 23, 1875. His parents were Frank Wesley Lewis and Mary Burr White Lewis. During his early years he was taught in his own home and at age 10 he entered public school, graduating in 1889.
In 1884 Lewis had to settle with his family in Lincoln, Nebraska. At age 13, he was admitted to the University of Nebraska High School.
Upon graduation, he pursued his university studies for two years and then enrolled at Harvard University in 1893.
Initially he was interested in economics, but eventually he opted for physics and chemistry. Gilbert earned his degree in chemistry in 1896 and for a year he taught at Phillips Academy, a private school in Andover.
He returned to Harvard for graduate work and master’s degree in 1898 with his thesis on The Electron and a Molecule . A year later he obtained his doctorate and his thesis was entitled Some electrochemical and thermochemical relations of zinc and cadmium amalgams ”.
At Harvard he served as an instructor for a year, then traveled to Europe on a scholarship. He studied with the great physicochemicals of the time.
In 1899 he traveled to Germany to study with Wilhelm Ostwald Leipzig and later with Walter Nernst at the University of Göttingen; then he worked for the Philippine government.
Academic work and participation in the war
Between 1999 and 1906 he taught chemistry at Harvard University and later was hired by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he was from 1907 to 1912.
He later became a professor of physical chemistry at the University of California (Berkeley), where he earned the degree of dean of the School of Chemistry.
In 1908 he published his first article on the theory of relativity in a parallel with Albert Einstein. In this he establishes that there is a link between energy-mass, but in a different direction from that used by Einstein.
On June 21, 1912 Lewis married Mary Hinckley Sheldon, with whom he had three children: Margery S. Lewis, Edward S. Lewis and Richard Newton Lewis.
His work in California was interrupted by the outbreak of the First World War . In 1917 he was commissioned to work for the US Army, where he became chief of the Defense Division of the Chemical Warfare Service.
Lewis’s dedication and ability to work allowed the army to reduce the number of casualties it had hitherto suffered as a result of the use of gas by enemy armies. At the end of the war, he was decorated with the highest honors for his services.
Death in the lab
Gilbert N. Lewis died at age 70 of a heart attack while working in his laboratory at the University of Berkeley, on March 23, 1946.
Perhaps due to his introverted personality, this eminent scientist never received the Nobel Prize. Almost at the end of his career, he managed to prove that the phosphorescence of organic molecules is governed by an excited triplet state, even going so far as to calculate their magnetic properties.
Contributions to science
Some of the most important contributions of Gilbert Newton Lewis to science are the following:
There are several methods that serve to represent the structure of a molecule. In these the symbols of the elements represent the atoms, while the dots represent the electrons that surround them. An example of this is the representation of hydrogen, helium, and carbon:
Lewis was the first to come up with the idea that atoms could stay together by comparing pairs of electrons; that is why he created the symbolism of the structures.
The theory of the wide bond proposed by Lewis served to group in a single concept all the types of chemical bonds. In this way it was possible to demonstrate the relationships between ionic, molecular, covalent and metallic substances. Until that moment these elements had not had any conceptual connection.
He conceptualized the covalent bond that is formed between two atoms when they join to achieve the stable octet and share electrons of the last level, except for hydrogen, which manages to achieve stability by having 2 electrons.
It was enunciated by Lewis in 1916. In this it is established that the ions belonging to the elements of the periodic system tend to complete their last energy levels with a number of 8 electrons. This allows them to acquire a very stable configuration.
He was the creator in 1926 of the term photon to designate the smallest unit of light energy. This particle of energy transmits all existing forms of electromagnetic radiation (X-rays, infrared, gamma, ultraviolet, microwaves, radio waves, etc.).
Chemical attraction and valence
Together with his chemist colleague Irwing Langmuir, he developed the theory of chemical attraction and valence, which is known as the Langmuir-Lewis theory. For this he relied on the atomic structure of substances.
Lewis was also the first scientist to study and produce heavy water (deuterium) in its pure state. He was also the first to apply the principles of thermodynamics in the study of chemical problems.
Likewise, Lewis is recognized for his work on the theory of solutions; that is, the homogeneous mixtures that are obtained from the interposition of the atoms, molecules or ions present in two or more substances. These substances called components are involved in varying proportions.