Josiah Willard Gibbs

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Josiah Willard Gibbs : biography

February 11, 1839 – April 28, 1903

Gibbs’s lecture notes on vector calculus were privately printed in 1881 and 1884 for the use of his students, and were later adapted by Edwin Bidwell Wilson into a textbook, Vector Analysis, published in 1901. That book helped to popularize the "del" notation that is widely used today in electrodynamics and fluid mechanics. In other mathematical work, he re-discovered the "Gibbs phenomenon" in the theory of Fourier series (which, unbeknownst to him and to later scholars, had been described fifty years before by an obscure English mathematician, Henry Wilbraham).

From 1882 to 1889, Gibbs wrote five papers on physical optics, in which he investigated birefringence and other optical phenomena and defended Maxwell’s electromagnetic theory of light against the mechanical theories of Lord Kelvin and others. In his work on optics just as much as in his work on thermodynamics, Gibbs deliberately avoided speculating about the microscopic structure of matter,Wheeler 1998, ch. VIII which proved a wise course in view of the revolutionary developments in quantum mechanics that began around the time of his death.

Gibbs coined the term statistical mechanics and introduced key concepts in the corresponding mathematical description of physical systems, including the notions of chemical potential (1876), statistical ensemble (1878), and phase space (1902).Klein 2008Wheeler 1998, ch. X Gibbs’s derivation of the phenomenological laws of thermodynamics from the statistical properties of systems with many particles was presented in his highly-influential textbook Elementary Principles in Statistical Mechanics, published in 1902, a year before his death.

Gibbs’s retiring personality and intense focus on his work limited his accessibility to students. His principal protégé was Edwin Bidwell Wilson, who nonetheless explained that "except in the classroom I saw very little of Gibbs. He had a way, toward the end of the afternoon, of taking a stroll about the streets between his study in the old Sloane Laboratory and his home—a little exercise between work and dinner—and one might occasionally come across him at that time."Wilson 1931 Gibbs did supervise the doctoral thesis on mathematical economics written by Irving Fisher in 1891. After Gibbs’s death, Fisher financed the publication of his Collected Works. Another distinguished student was Lee De Forest, later a pioneer of radio technology.

Gibbs died in New Haven, aged 64, the victim of an acute intestinal obstruction. He is buried in Grove Street Cemetery.

Personal life and character

Gibbs never married, living all his life in his childhood home with his sister Julia and her husband Addison Van Name, who was the Yale librarian. Except for his customary summer vacations in the Adirondacks (at Keene Valley, New York) and later at the White Mountains (in Intervale, New Hampshire),Seeger 1974, pp. 15–16 his sojourn in Europe in 1866–69 was almost the only time that Gibbs spent outside New Haven. He joined Yale’s College Church (a Congregational church) at the end of his freshman year and remained a regular attendant for the rest of his life.Wheeler, 1998, p. 16 He generally voted for the Republican candidate in presidential elections, but he supported Grover Cleveland, a conservative Democrat. Otherwise very little is known of his religious or political views, which he kept to himself.

Gibbs did not produce a substantial personal correspondence and many of his letters were later lost or destroyed.Rukeyser 1988, pp. 254, 345, 430 Beyond the technical writings concerning his research, he published only two other pieces: a brief obituary for Rudolf Clausius, one of the founders of the mathematical theory of thermodynamics, and a longer biographical memoir of his mentor at Yale, H. A. Newton.Wheeler 1998, p. 95. See also the Collected Works, vol. II In Edward Bidwell Wilson’s view,

According to Lynde Wheeler, who had been Gibbs’s student at Yale, in his later years Gibbs