In 1862, he began to attend lectures in mathematics, physics and astronomy at the University in his city of birth, although he was not qualified to be enrolled as a regular student in part because of his lack of education in classical languages.
While Van der Waals served as director of a high school in The Hague, a new law removed classical languages from the list of compulsory courses for science students at universities, and he passed in 1873 the examinations for doctor's degree in physics.
His dissertation, On the Continuity of the Gaseous and Liquid States, revealed him at one stroke as a most original master of physics. Van der Waals argued that R. J. E. Clausius's derivation of Robert Boyle's gas law from statistical mechanics had to be supplemented by new considerations if it was to hold for real gases and their transformation into liquids. The new consideration was the "principle of continuity, " by which Van der Waals meant that from the viewpoint of statistical mechanics there could be no basic difference between the gaseous and the liquid states.
In addition he noted the need for considering two factors, the volume of molecules and their mutual attraction. He succeeded in relating these two factors to the critical temperature, pressure, and volume, or the critical point. It therefore followed that the equation of state could be expressed in a form independent of any particular gas or liquid. This in turn led to the most momentous part of Van der Waals's research, the law of corresponding states, formulated in 1880. According to it, the whole range of behavior of a substance can be predicted once its critical point has been ascertained.
This result played a crucial role in the efforts leading to the liquefaction of hydrogen (1898) and of helium (1908). His other principal achievement consisted in the combination of the law of corresponding states with the second law of thermodynamics, which he outlined in 1890 in his first treatise on the theory of binary solutions.
In 1876 Van der Waals became the first professor of physics at the newly established University of Amsterdam. His son, Johannes Diderik, Jr. , was the next occupant of the chair. Van der Waals died in Amsterdam on March 8, 1923.
He was made honorary member of the Imperial Society of Naturalists of Moscow, the Royal Irish Academy and the American Philosophical Society; corresponding member of the Institut de France and the Royal Academy of Sciences of Berlin; associate member of the Royal Academy of Sciences of Belgium; and foreign member of the Chemical Society of London, the National Academy of Sciences of the U. S. , and of the Accademia dei Lincei of Rome. Van der Waals was a member of the Koninklijke Nederlandse Akademie van Wetenschappen (Royal Netherlands Academy of Sciences) since 1875.
Quotes from others about the person
In fact James Clerk Maxwell remarked, when he learned of the dissertation's contents, "The name of Van der Waals will soon be among the foremost in molecular science. "
He married Anna Magdalena Smit in 1865, and the couple had three daughters (Anne Madeleine, Jacqueline E. van der Waals, Johanna Diderica) and one son, the physicist Johannes Diderik van der Waals, Jr. Jacqueline was a poet of some note.
The wife of Johannes van der Waals died of tuberculosis at 34 years old in 1881. After becoming a widower Van der Waals never remarried and was so shaken by the death of his wife that he did not publish anything for about a decade.