Agnes Luise Wilhelmine Pockels (February 14, 1862 – November 21, 1935), was a German pioneer in chemistry. Her work was fundamental in establishing the modern discipline known as surface science, which describes the properties of liquid and solid surfaces.
Early life and education
Pockels was born in Venice, Italy, in 1862. At the time, Venice was under Austrian rule, and Pockels' father served in the Austrian Army. When he fell sick, the family moved in 1871 to Brunswick, Lower Saxony, which was part of the nascent German Empire. There, Pockels attended the Municipal High School for Girls.
As a child, Pockels was interested in science, and would have liked to study physics. In those days, however, women had no access to universities. It was only through her younger brother, Friedrich Carl Alwin Pockels, that she gained access to scientific literature. Friedrich, who then studied at the University of Göttingen, was a famous scientist himself; he is known for the Pockels effect.
Research and later life
As legend has it, Pockels discovered the influence of impurities on the surface tension of fluids doing the dishes in her own kitchen. Despite her lack of formal training, Pockels was able to measure the surface tension of water by devising an apparatus known as the slide trough, a key instrument in the new discipline of surface science. Using an improved version of this slide trough, American chemist Irving Langmuir made additional discoveries on the properties of surface molecules, which earned him a Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1932. Pockels' device is also a direct antecedent of the Langmuir–Blodgett trough, developed later by Langmuir and physicist Katharine Blodgett.
In 1891, with the help of Lord Rayleigh, Pockels published her first paper, "Surface Tension," on her measurements in the journal Nature. Thus began her career studying surface films. She never received a formal appointment, but she published a number of papers and eventually received recognition as a pioneer in the new field of surface science.
Pockels died in 1935 in Brunswick, Germany.
Honors and awards
In 1931, together with Henri Devaux, Pockels received the Laura Leonard award from the Colloid Society. In the following year, the Braunschweig University of Technology granted her an honorary PhD.
C.H. Giles and S.D. Forrester, "The origins of the surface film balance: Studies in the early history of surface chemistry, part 3", Chemistry and Industry, pp. 43–53 (9 January 1971). (Note: This article contains one of the most detailed story on Agnes Pockels, including photos on her and her family.)
Charles Tanford, Ben Franklin stilled the waves: An informal history of pouring oil on water with reflections on the ups and downs of scientific life in general, Oxford University Press, 2004.
M. Elizabeth Derrick, "Agnes Pockels, 1862-1935", Journal of Chemical Education, vol. 59, no. 12, pp. 1030–1031 (Dec. 1982).
Andrea Kruse and Sonja M. Schwarzl. "Zum Beispiel Agnes Pockels." In: Nachrichten aus der Chemie, 06, 2002.