Johannes Diderik

Johannes Diderik van der Waals was born on the 23rd of November in 1839. He was, without a doubt, one of the most influential Dutch physicists. He was of great importance for the blossoming of the sciences in our country and contributed a lot to the regard of the Netherlands in the sciences. J.D. was originally educated to be a teacher. In 1866 he started as teacher at the H.B.S. in The Hague, later he became the director. He was studying physics and mathematics at Leiden university while still working at the H.B.S.. In 1873 he gained his PhD with the dissertation titled: “Over de continuïteit van gas- en vloestoftoestand” (on the continuity of the gaseous and liquid state). In this Dissertation he first published his now well-known law:

$$\left( p + \frac{a}{V_m^2} \right)\left( V_m -b\right)=RT$$

being a correction of the ideal gas law, by giving the gas its own volume and assuming a force between individual molecules. This force is now known as the “Van der Waals force”.

In 1877 J.D. becomes the first professor in physics at the recently to university promoted Athenaeum “Illustre” in Amsterdam (Which later became the University of Amsterdam). From 1875 to 1895 he was a member of the Royal Dutch Academy of Arts and Sciences. At the age of 71 in 1908 he retired as professor. To honor him a memorial with his most memorable contributions to physics was revealed in the physics laboratory. On the 18th of November of the same year he, together with Kamerling Onnes, received the gold medal of the “Genootschap ter bevordering van natuur-, genees- en heelkunde” in Amsterdam. This was a big honor, as these medals are only awarded very rarely. They also were the first physicists to receive this honorary award.

Van der Waals earned a lot of awards during his life. He is, for example, one of the twelve foreign members of the Academie des Sciences in Paris. In 1910 he got the Nobel prize in physics for his astonishing work on gas and liquid phase equations. He became the third Dutch physicists to win this prize. He was only preceded by Zeeman and Lorentz.

He died (at the age of 85) on the 8th of March 1923. Professor Went, chairman of the Royal Dutch Academy of Arts and Sciences, wrote the following about his death: “In Van der Waals, the Netherlands has lost one of his greatest sons, one of the most noble practitioners of the sciences”. 

It has become clear why we as study association for Physics full of pride and with permission of his heirs use his name. Or as was noted during the founding of this association: “Let us be a close group, bonded by the Van der Waals forces”.