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Gibbs, Josiah Willard

chemical usa yale mathematical

(1839–1903) US physical chemist: founder of chemical thermodynamics.

Before 1850, the Americas had produced few physical scientists of renown, with only in the pre-revolutionary USA; but the next 30 years saw the work of H A Rowland (1848–1901) and Gibbs, who was perhaps the most original of all of them and the only theorist. From youth he maintained the family tradition of skill in classical languages but also won prizes in mathematics, and in 1863 he gained the first Yale PhD in engineering, the second PhD awarded in the USA.

The next 3 years he spent at Yale as a tutor (2 years in Latin, and one in physics) before spending 2 years in France and Germany, with the two survivors of his four sisters, attending lectures by leading chemists, mathematicians and physicists. In 1871 he was appointed professor of mathematical physics at Yale. He held the job until his death, despite being unsalaried for the first 9 years on the curious grounds that he was not in need of money. He was not a good teacher and few understood his work. He never married, and lived with his sisters in New Haven, close to the college. His ideas, which founded chemical thermodynamics and statistical mechanics, were expressed in elegantly austere mathematical form in lesser-known journals, so few chemists understood them; some of his results were later rediscovered by (among others), to their disappointment, and even found reading his papers ‘difficult’.

His ideas were of permanent use and were also still giving new insights a century after their appearance. In the 1870s he derived the Gibbs phase rule, which deals elegantly with heterogeneous equilibria, and devised the concept now known as the Gibbs function, which enables prediction of the feasibility and direction of a hypothetical chemical change in advance of direct trial. His later work covered chemical potential (an idea invented by him), surface adsorption and the deduction of thermodynamic laws from statistical mechanics. It could be said that his fellow American Rumford began to solve the problem of heat and Gibbs completed the solution. In the 1890s his work was translated into French and German, and recognition and public honours followed. He remains probably the greatest theoretical scientist born in the USA.

Gideon [next] [back] Gibbs, Jonathan Clarkson(1828–1874) - Minister, politician, educator, Chronology, Serves as Secretary of State, Becomes Superintendent of Public Instruction

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