Josiah Willard Gibbs (Feb 11, 1839 to 28 April 1903)

• First Doctorate of Engineering Awarded in the US (1863) by Yale

• Royal Academy of Science – Copley Medal Award in 1901

• American Academy of Science 1873

If I could go back in time, I would hire J. Willard Gibbs a publicist. Just that one thing, so that his brilliance could have been appreciated at the time, as well as now, in a time when we could desperately use a widespread understanding of thermodynamics, they way we innately understand gravity.

Gibbs is never recorded as ever having used the term ‘thermodynamics’ in his life, although he is known as the father of modern thermodynamics by all chemical and mechanical engineers who study the field. Gibbs instead called his area of work ‘Statistical Mechanics’. And what is that, exactly. His work is what is known as equations of state, or mathematical representations of the energies of systems of particles in whatever phase (solid, liquid or gas) they are currently at.

Through his complex equations of state for matter as individual particles, he allowed the science of thermodynamics to come into being, such that physical chemistry can be expressed as an inductive science. Previously, this area of science was only able to be understood heuristically, through direct experimentation and recordkeeping (as done by Joule-Thompson in the invention of the constant enthalpy expansion valve which is the basis of LNG liquefaction). Through Gibbs’ work, we can predict the values for systems mathematically without needing to verify the result through experimentation. It also allows us to accurately calculate work that is required to be put into (or can be taken out of) a system of mass and energy in balance. These become important in the design and operation of any mechanical, electrical or industrial system used to make anything.

Conceptually, the leap that Gibbs made to understand the mass and energy balance of a whole system was to be able to visualise it in 3D, so that you can then speculate on one additional variable in addition to what you visualise. The fourth dimension is time. This is why representations of the equations of state for a substance look like sculptures of Salvador Dali, warped bulging blobs with temperature and pressure contour lines inscribed on the surface. They are difficult to grasp for some, and many lose interest in the subject here

Happy 182nd birthday Josiah Willard Gibbs (Feb 11, 1839 to 28 April 1903)

- First Doctorate of Engineering Awarded in the US (1863) by Yale
- Royal Academy of Science – Copley Medal Award in 1901
- American Academy of Science 1873

If I could go back in time, I would hire J. Willard Gibbs a publicist. Just that one thing, so that his brilliance could have been appreciated at the time, as well as now, in a time when we could desperately use a widespread understanding of thermodynamics, they way we innately understand gravity.

Gibbs is never recorded as ever having used the term ‘thermodynamics’ in his life, although he is known as the father of modern thermodynamics by all chemical and mechanical engineers who study the field. Gibbs instead called his area of work ‘Statistical Mechanics’. And what is that, exactly. His work is what is known as equations of state, or mathematical representations of the energies of systems of particles in whatever phase (solid, liquid or gas) they are currently at.

Through his complex equations of state for matter as individual particles, he allowed the science of thermodynamics to come into being, such that physical chemistry can be expressed as an inductive science. Previously, this area of science was only able to be understood heuristically, through direct experimentation and record-keeping (as done by Joule-Thompson in the invention of the constant enthalpy expansion valve which is the basis of LNG liquefaction). Through Gibbs’ work, we can predict the values for systems mathematically without needing to verify the result through experimentation. It also allows us to accurately calculate work that is required to be put into (or can be taken out of) a system of mass and energy in balance. These become important in the design and operation of any mechanical, electrical or industrial system used to make anything.

Conceptually, the leap that Gibbs made to understand the mass and energy balance of a whole system was to be able to visualise it in 3D, so that you can then speculate on one additional variable in addition to what you visualise. The fourth dimension is time. This is why representations of the equations of state for a substance look like sculptures of Salvador Dali, warped bulging blobs with temperature and pressure contour lines inscribed on the surface. They are difficult to grasp for some, and many lose interest in the subject here.

What Gibbs did was describe thermodynamics as a fully formed theoretical structure, taking into account complex systems of multiple compounds in whatever their state (solid, liquid or gas). These equations also fully account for the variables for

**entropy**, expressed in terms of change, with reference to systems in equilibrium or irreversible in time. So, even though we will never be able to directly measure entropy, and it remains as misunderstood today as is dark matter, we can never-the-less fully account for it in any system of mass and energy.Basically, he’s the guy that put boundaries around chaos. Because that is essentially what entropy is, the state of chaos within a system. And we need to account for this chaos every time we evaluate a system, whether it is power plant running my town, or climate change on a global scale.

I know what you’re thinking, sure that’s good stuff, but it isn’t that brilliant. Two things. Along the way, in order to express himself, he invented vector mathematics. His method was later adapted into a textbook in 1902 “Vector Analysis” which remains the basis of this area of calculus to this day. If you have ever worked out a dot-product or cross-product of a set of vectors in a math class, you have used Gibbs invention, for which he was never paid a cent. In addition, Gibbs’ laws related to the equations of state and irreversibility are consistent with what was later discovered in quantum mechanics which hadn’t even been theorised until 50 years after Gibbs died (the resolution of Gibbs paradox related to the entropy of mixed gases). So he designed an areas of science that is consistent with revolutionary changes that followed (relativity and quantum mechanics). So take that Isaac Newton! (who had a very good publicist by the way)

The article “On the Equilibrium of Heterogeneous Substances” was the work for which he won the Copley Medal. And when I say article, that’s a pretty serious load test of that word. If fact the article was published in as a set of two articles of over 300 pages and containing exactly 700 equations published in 1875 and ’78. The article starts with statements that will become known as the first and second laws of thermodynamics “The energy of the universe is constant” and “The entropy of the universe trends toward a maximum”. The Copley Medal is the highest honour that the Royal Academy of Science bestows, so his brilliance was recognised at the time, but only by a very small number of people that could understand his work. It was said of his citation, “…only James Clerk Maxwell (electro-magnetic theory) could understand his work, and now he is dead” (when JCM died unexpectedly in 1879 at 49)

Albert Einstein said that Gibbs was one of the scientists in the history of the world that he most admired, calling him “the greatest mind in American history”

There was no Nobel Prize during Gibbs’ lifetime, but Gibbs’ work that won him the Copley Medal is cited by 17 Nobel Prize winners as formative in their work in areas as diverse as Economics, Electromagnetism, Crystallography and Biology. His work did not come into wide use until the 1950s when rapid industrial expansion and scientific study ‘caught up’.

“Elementary Principles of Statistical Mechanics”, the textbook written from his work in 1902, is essentially taught unchanged to students of thermodynamics to this day. Any engineer that learns the basics of unit operations (heat transfer, mass transfer and energy transfer) is beholden to Gibbs.

But Gibbs remains relatively unknown. Part of it had to do with his very quiet nature. He wasn’t a self-promoter, and while pleasant to his students, he rarely had any that could fully understand his work at the time, so he tended not to have many. Never married, no scandal and liked quietly off the inheritance of his parents that both died relatively early in his life.

Other than one brief trip overseas (3 years in Europe with his sisters), he lived his entire life in New Haven Connecticut, and taught at Yale College for is entire career (the first half unpaid).

So he definitely could have used a publicist. If he did, maybe today we would have many people asking the appropriate hard questions of climate change deniers, and those that try to sell us on ‘clean coal’ or carbon capture and storage systems which are not thermodynamically sound. We can solve climate change, an area I have been working in since 1988, but we can’t do it without following the four laws of thermodynamics. So it would be nice if we focused on the real things that we can do (often boring) and not focus on those that are imaginary (such as a perpetual motion machine).