Josiah Willard Gibbs


Josiah Willard Gibbs : biography

February 11, 1839 – April 28, 1903

E. A. Guggenheim introduced the symbol G for the Gibbs free energy in 1933, and the same symbol was used also by Dirk ter Haar in 1966.Seeger 1974, p. 96 This notation is now universal and is recommended by the IUPAC. In 1960, William Giauque et al. suggested using the name "gibbs" (abbreviated gbs.) for the unit of entropy, calorie / Kelvin, but this usage did not become common and the corresponding SI unit, Joule / Kelvin, carries no special name.

In literature

In 1909, the American historian and novelist Henry Adams finished an essay entitled "The Rule of Phase Applied to History", in which he sought to apply Gibbs’s phase rule and other thermodynamic concepts to a general theory of human history. William James, Henry Bumstead, and others criticized both Adams’s tenuous grasp of the scientific concepts that he invoked, as well as the arbitrariness of his application of those concepts as metaphors for the evolution of human thought and society. The essay remained unpublished until it appeared posthumously in 1919, in The Degradation of the Democratic Dogma, edited by Henry Adams’s younger brother Brooks.

In the 1930s, feminist poet Muriel Rukeyser became fascinated by Willard Gibbs and wrote a long poem about his life and work ("Gibbs", included in the collection A Turning Wind, published in 1939), as well as a book-length biography (Willard Gibbs, 1942).Rukeyser 1988 According to Rukeyser:

In 1946, Fortune magazine illustrated a cover story on "Fundamental Science" with a representation of the thermodynamic surface that Maxwell had built based on Gibbs’s proposal. Rukeyser had called this surface a "statue of water"Rukeyser 1988, pp. 203 and the magazine saw in it "the abstract creation of a great American scientist that lends itself to the symbolism of contemporary art forms." The artwork by Arthur Lidov also included Gibbs’s mathematical expression of the phase rule for heterogenous mixtures, as well as a radar screen, an oscilloscope waveform, Newton’s apple, and a small rendition of a three-dimensional phase diagram.

Gibbs’s nephew, Ralph Gibbs Van Name, a professor of physical chemistry at Yale, was unhappy with Rukeyser’s biography, in part because of her lack of scientific training. Van Name had withheld the family papers from her and, after her book was published in 1942 to positive literary but mixed scientific reviews, he tried to encourage Gibbs’s former students to produce a new and more technically oriented biography. With his support, Lynde Wheeler published such a work in 1951.Wheeler 1998

Both Gibbs and Rukeyser’s biography of him figure prominently in the poetry collection True North (1997) by Stephanie Strickland. In fiction, Gibbs appears as the mentor to character Kit Traverse in Thomas Pynchon’s novel Against the Day (2006). That novel also prominently discusses the birefringence of Iceland spar, an optical phenomenon that Gibbs investigated.

Gibbs stamp (2005)

On May 4, 2005, the United States Postal Service issued the American Scientists commemorative postage stamp series designed by artist Victor Stabin, depicting Gibbs, John von Neumann, Barbara McClintock, and Richard Feynman. Kenneth R. Jolls, a professor of chemical engineering at Iowa State University and an expert on graphical methods in thermodynamics, consulted on the design of the stamp honoring Gibbs. The stamp identifies Gibbs as a "thermodynamicist" and features a diagram from the 4th edition of Maxwell’s Theory of Heat, published in 1875, which illustrates Gibbs’s thermodynamic surface for water. Microprinting on the collar of Gibbs’s portrait depicts his original mathematical equation for the change in the energy of a substance in terms of its entropy and the other state variables.


Family background

Gibbs belonged to an old Yankee family that had produced distinguished American clergymen and academics since the 17th century. He was the fourth of five children and the only son of Josiah Willard Gibbs and his wife Mary Anna, née Van Cleve. On his father’s side, he was descended from Samuel Willard, who served as acting President of Harvard College from 1701 to 1707. On his mother’s side, one of his ancestors was the Rev. Jonathan Dickinson, the first president of the College of New Jersey (later Princeton University). Gibbs’s given name, which he shared with his father and several other members of his extended family, derived from his ancestor Josiah Willard, who had been Secretary of the Province of Massachusetts Bay in the 18th century.Bumstead 1928