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Josiah Willard Gibbs

April 12, 2005

A public radio commentary

This month the U.S. Postal Service debuts a new commemorative stamp set to celebrate four American scientists. Today I share the second in that series: Josiah Willard Gibbs.

Although Josiah Willard Gibbs lived and worked mostly in the 19th century - he made it into the 20th only by a scant three years - he remains near and dear to my heart because I've taught and lived with his work for years.

Gibbs truly revolutionized the world, although the facts of his life suggest nothing interesting: Born in New Haven Connecticut, and died in the same place - in fact, in the family home where he grew up. He never married, and lived his whole life with his sister. He held only one job: Professor at Yale University - and even that he did for free for the first nine years. Only when another university offered him a salary of $3,000 did Yale starting paying him $2,000.

Gibbs studied thermodynamics - the study of how energy moves around. While at Yale he wrote an earth scattering paper with the cumbersome title of "On the Equilibrium of Heterogeneous Substances." As a young teacher of thermodynamics I decided to read it. I found it incomprehensible. In fact, in Gibb's own lifetime the paper was so confusing and so terse that it only had impact after a fellow scientist translated it into German and added commentary.

In that paper Gibbs taught the world how to think about chemical reactions. We're all familiar with them: They appear most vividly in the explosion of a firework. Before Gibbs chemists had to use trial and error to see if chemicals would react to form something new.

Here's what Gibbs did: Think for a moment of a car poised on top of a hill. Release the brake and the car naturally goes downhill until it rests in a valley; conversely a car at the bottom of the valley would never spontaneously go uphill, unless someone stepped on the gas.

Gibbs showed that chemicals behave in the same way: Either they'll react - that is go down hill together naturally - or, figuratively speaking, they're stuck at the bottom of a valley and won't react at all. Gibbs great genius showed chemists exactly how to calculate which reactions are poised on a hilltop, and which are stuck forever in a valley.

Does Gibbs deserve to be celebrated on a U.S. Postage stamp? Yes. Thanks to Gibbs chemistry serves as the central science of our modern world, as the basis of nearly every manufactured object. The plastic case of a computer, for example, comes from mixing ingredients until they react to form a solid sheet. The same, of course, is true of everything else in your house: soap, glass, butter, and cosmetics, to name just a few. Rarely has such genius been observed in the scientific world as Josiah Willard Gibbs, and even rarer does it have this impact.

Copyright 2005 William S. Hammack Enterprises